Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has been attacked in the contemporary political discourse for his articulation of Hindutva. Without understanding his views in totality and actions in entirety, one cannot understand the meaning of being Veer Savarkar, writes renowned historian Prof. Raghuvendra Tanwar in this four-part series titled ‘Savarkar and the Incomplete Narrative of Independence Struggle’.
October 7, 1905 was a milestone in Savarkar’s early political career. It was Dussehra day. Savarkar had organised a protest march and decided to organise a bonfire of foreign goods and clothes. Some protesters suggested that the political speeches that were to be made after the bonfire should be made at another venue, a place called Reay Market, that is other than where the clothes were burnt. Savarkar, however, insisted that the impact would be greater if the political speeches were made at the same venue while the clothes were still in flames. To everyone’s surprise, Tilak supported Savarkar’s stand. The speech that Savarkar made on the occasion was the stuff that came to be recited across the city of Poona in the days that followed. Savarkar thus became the first Indian to make a bonfire of foreign clothes. As a result, he also became the first Indian to be rusticated from a government-aided institution. He was also fined a sum of Rs10/-. Interestingly several moderate leaders of the Congress at the time did not approve the public bonfire—these included the very eminent G.K. Gokhle and even Mahatma Gandhi, who was yet to return to India and was in South Africa at the time.
In Bombay, while studying Law, Savarkar, also started writing for a Marathi weekly, ‘Vihari’. He used his writings to spread the message of the Abhinava Bharat.
In many ways, the bonfire of clothes produced in England marks a major milestone in the story of the freedom movement. To Savarkar, it meant even if symbolically, to burn not only the foreigner but also his rule. It was as Savarkar also noted at the time the first stepping-stone on the long road to India’s freedom. To the British, it was like a blow to a place where it hurts most.
Abhinav Bharat for its youthful following at this stage was like a matchstick that had the potential of bringing down the Empire. The might of the Empire was never in doubt but Abhinav Bharat believed that the Empire was not invincible. Savarkar also believed that it was important to generate disaffection and hatred for foreign rule among the masses. It is this dislike and disapproval he said that would finally explode and end foreign rule.
From the very beginning, Savarkar was in favour of a path for the fight for freedom that was defiant and dangerous. When he said that shedding drops of blood was bound to be more fruitful than shedding tears to regain what was lost, he had thrown the first great challenge to the power of the Empire.
England: Free India Society
In 1906, on the recommendation of Lokmanya Tilak, Savarkar was selected for the Pandit Shamji Krishan Verma scholarship to study in London. There is an interesting story of this scholarship. Shri Bal Raj Madhok, the senior Bharatiya Jana Sangh leader narrated an interesting and little known fact of Savarkar in an obituary essay he wrote on Savarkar’s death in 1966. The scholarship for which Savarkar was selected had required applicants to write a few lines of their goals in life. This is what Savarkar wrote: “Independence and liberty I look upon as the very pulse and breath of a nation. From my boyhood dear Sir, up to this moment of my youth the loss of independence of my country regaining it form the only theme of which I dreamt by night and day.”
He sailed for London on June 9, 1906. Within months of reaching London, Savarkar started a new organisation by the name of Free India Society (1907). The Society in fact became in due course a recruiting ground for the Abhinava Bharat. Within the first six months of his stay in London, Savarkar had translated into Marathi the autobiography of the great Italian patriot Mazzini. He dedicated it to Lokmanya Tilak. At the same, he learnt Gurumukhi and completed readings of the Adi Granth, the Vichitra Natak and Pant Prakash. Savarkar was greatly inspired and fascinated by the courage and sacrifices of the Sikh gurus and even published a pamphlet by the title of ‘Khalsa’. His love for the Sikhs stayed with him through his life.
The turning point in Savarkar’s career in Europe was something quite of the mainstream at the time. It so happened that in Britain there was then this practice of dedicating and celebrating the 1st of May each year as the day of deliverance and victory in the 1857 Uprising of India. Savarkar noticed the headlines and stories in most newspapers. With his great interest in history, he was obviously aware of the sacrifices made by countless Indians in 1857 as also the inhuman and violent manner in which the British had taken revenge. In response, Savarkar organised the May 10, 1907 also the 50th anniversary of the great Uprising as a day to remember the Indian heroes and martyrs of 1857. Indian students and other residents attended meetings, memorials, wore badges on their chests and even fasted.
The First War of Independence: 1857
Savarkar was only 24 years of age when he wrote the Marathi version of this classic story of the great anti-British uprising of 1857. The English translation appeared in 1909. While introducing the first edition Savarkar had explained why he felt inspired to write the story: “…I found to my great surprise the brilliance of the War of Independence shinning in the Mutiny of 1857… The spirits of the dead seemed hallowed by martyrdom and out of the heaps of the ashes appeared sparks of inspiration…” The other reason was also that he was unable to accept the manner in which the British celebrated their so-called victory in 1857. He consciously called it a ‘War of Independence’. In fact, much of what he wrote in this book had earlier formed a part of his public lectures delivered to members of the Free India Society.
A group of Marathi students who were in England now took up the task of translating the script into English. With the British CID on their heels, the first edition (English) was finally printed in Holland and smuggled back into France. It was immediately proscribed by the British government. Copies of the first edition were dramatically smuggled into India wrapped in the covers of popular English titles of the time.
In Europe, the book was distributed free of cost by Abhinava Bharat. Thereafter, activists like Lala Hardayal and Madam Cama published another edition. Hardayal had by now started his paper the ‘Ghadar’ in the USA. He published select parts of the book in the paper. At about the same time it was also translated into several Indian languages and was soon like a Bible for the revolutionaries. In fact, many of the revolutionaries were arrested with copies of Savarkar’s ‘1857’ in their possession. The book remained proscribed till as long as the British were in India. Interestingly many senior leaders and freedom fighters had pleaded with the Congress leaders to put pressure on the British to lift the ban on the book. The matter, however, was not seriously pursued. The ban was lifted only after 1947.
It was Savarkar, who first drew attention through this work to names like the Rani of Jhansi, Mangal Pandey and Tantia Tope. To reproduce some interesting excerpts. In the context of Hindu-Muslim relations, Savarkar wrote: “…the nation that has no consciousness of its past has no future… The nation ought to be the master and not the slave of its own history… The feeling of hatred against the Mahomedans was just and necessary in the times of Shivaji—but such a feeling would be unjust and foolish if nursed now… simply because it was the dominant feeling of the Hindus then…”
Savarkar while commenting at length on what was to him the most outstanding feature of the great uprising noted that it was the unity among Hindus and Muslims: “So, now, the antagonism between the Hindus and the Mahomedans might be consigned to the Past. Their present relation was one not of rulers and ruled foreigner and native, but simply that of brothers, with the one difference between them of religion alone. For, they were both children of the soil of Hindustan. Their names were different, but they were all children of the same Mother; India, therefore, being the common mother of these two, they were brothers by blood.”
Savarkar presented the history of the great uprising of 1857 in a style and content that was a direct challenge to British rule in India. For example: “Rise for Swadharma and acquire Swaraj!’ What divine events in the history of India are due to the realization of this principle! The poet-saint Ramdas gave the same dictum to the Mahrattas 250 years ago. ‘Die for your Dharma, kill the enemies of your Dharma while you are dying; in this way fight and kill, and take back your kingdom!’ …This alone is the principle in the Revolutionary War of 1857. This is its mental science. The true and only telescope which will show it in its true and clear form is the above verse of Ramdas…
When Savarkar was sentenced to transportation for life in December 1910, the judge had specially quoted the danger to the Empire from Savarkar’s writings: “…Vinayak was leader of the group of students at India House… he dispatched to India a pamphlet ‘O Martyrs’ in praise of those Indians who fell on the rebel side during the Munity…” Referring to Savarkar’s writings of the book (1857) the judge said: “…we find the accused guilty of the abetment of war by instigating by the circulation of printed matter inciting to war… it amounts to declaration of war against the British government…”
The first group of friends that Savarkar came to be associated with are all great names in the course for India’s struggle for freedom. They were young men and women who had promising careers but chose a path of sacrifice. Lala Har Dayal, (1884-1939), Bhai Parmanand, Virendernath Chattopadhya (1880-1937), Madav (Senapati) Bapat (1880-1967), VVS. Aiyar (1881-1925) and Bhikaji Rustom Cama, better known as Madame Cama (1861-1936) are well known among Savarkar’s close circle in England.
Madan Lal Dhingra was the son of a reputed eye surgeon who was serving as the Civil Surgeon of Amritsar when Dhingra was sent to London to study engineering. Two of his brothers were doctors. He came to be Savarkar’s closest associate. After Dhingra assassinated Curzon Wylie (1 July, 1909) he was virtually disowned by the nationalist leadership. Savarkar alone stood out in his support. Dhingra was hanged on 19 August, 1909. Savarkar published a pamphlet: “17 August 1909 will remain engraved in red letters in the heart of every Indian who loves his motherland… his spirit will guide us in the battle for freedom… the act of a patriot comes like a storm in the moral waves of human society.”
Arrested & Deported
The year 1909, was a volatile and inspiring one for those who believed that the British must be made to leave India whatever the price. The working of the Abhinava Bharat was traced out by the CID in India. One of the fallouts was that Savarkar’s elder brother Babarao was sentenced to transportation for life on 8 June, 1909. He was charged for among other activities also for holding the view: “pray tell me who ever got freedom without war…”. A few months later an attempt was made on the life of Viceroy Lord Minto (13 November, 1909) by Mohanlal Pandya in Ahmadabad. On 21 December, 1909, Anant Kanhere shot dead Nashik’s Collector A.M.T. Jackson. Savarkar’s younger brother too was now arrested.
In Europe, Savarkar was already on the run. The Jackson murder trial had established that he was the spirit of the Free India Society and Abhinava Bharat. He was declared the ‘most dangerous wanted man’. To save his friends from arrest and torture he returned to London from Paris and was arrested at London’s Victoria Station on 10 March, 1910.
Savarkar had been in Europe for about 4 years almost to the day. In this limited time, he was now an icon among revolutionaries across Europe and had succeeded in bringing India’s struggle for freedom to the world stage in a manner that could never have been visualised at the time.
Reaches India—Transported for Life
The ship carrying Savarkar touched Bombay port on 22 July, 1910. He was escorted in the ship by a team of British officers and was taken off the ship by a special police boat even before it had docked in the actual dock. The operation was led by Michael Kennedy, I.G., Bombay Police. The whole operation was undertaken in top secrecy. He was transported by a special train to Nashik and then to Yeravada jail. The trial opened in Bombay on 15 Sept. 1910, with Savarkar now in the Dongri jail in Bombay. The court was like a fortress. He was escorted to the court by over 50 armed policemen. The Police Commissioner of Bombay was personally seen supervising the security in the court. Savarkar was already a household name in most parts of India. As The Tribune put it: “…the whole country is agog with curiosity as to the future developments in Savarkar’s case…”
On 23 December, 1910, Savarkar was sentenced to transportation for life and confiscation of all property. In another sentence for charges that included supplying the revolver with which Jackson was killed, he was given a second sentence for life on 30 January, 1911. This remained an un-established charge till the end.
One of the judgments’ quoted from a pamphlet written by Savarkar, Bande Matram: “…campaign for separate assassinations is the best conceivable method of paralyzing the bureaucracy and rousing the people …”. He was charged for abetting and waging war and: “for overawing by criminal force or show of criminal force the government of India and the local government…”.
Once the sentence was confirmed, Savarkar got back to doing what he liked most—writing. His first writing after the sentence was a poem dedicated to the life, sacrifice and courage of the great Guru Govind Singh—the last and 10th of the Sikh Gurus.
The Tribune located in distant Lahore had followed the trial in detail and wrote several editorials on Savarkar from the day of his landing in India to his deportation to the Andaman. In Punjab, there was in fact widespread interest in Savarkar and his inspiring and courageous work. It commented on the sentence: “…sentences awarded are shockingly severe…” Some days later, it commented on the sentence of his second transportation for life and said the prosecution was unable to directly prove his role, and at most could only show that he had supplied the revolver. It is clear from the proceedings that Savarkar was given such a harsh sentence mainly because in him the British saw a huge potential for an uprising—a violent uprising against their rule.