Savarkar’s mercy petitions: Truth vs Hype

By his own admission, Savarkar wrote at least four petitions for clemency and release from prison

Savarkar’s mercy petitions: Truth vs Hype

Sanjukta Basu

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a proponent of Hindutva, was also a rationalist, who opposed Hindu superstition, the caste system and worship of the cow. Savarkar, who called himself ‘Veer’ in a biography that he wrote himself under the pseudonym of ‘Chitragupta’ was arrested on March 13, 1910 and taken to the Cellular Jail in Andamans on July 4, 1911.

He was arrested following the assassination of A.M.T. Jackson, the then District Magistrate of Nasik. Savarkar was in London when the assassination was carried out but he was accused of providing the pistol used to kill Jackson. Savarkar and his elder brother Ganesh Savarkar had founded Mitra Mela (now called Abhinav Bharat) in Nasik, a secret revolutionary society, which was accused of the murder.

Vikram Sampath, who has written a two-volume biography of Savarkar this year, claimed that Savarkar was advised to write a mercy petition by Mahatma Gandhi. But Savarkar himself has admitted to have written at least four such petitions. And Sampath’s earlier book ‘Echoes From a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924’ records that the first clemency petition filed by V.D. Savarkar was received on August 30, 1911. Savarkar filed a second mercy petition on November 14, 1913. A third one followed in 1918. Gandhi, who had returned from South Africa in 1915, apparently had no role in prompting Savarkar to write the three petitions.

It was only in January, 1920, that Savarkar’s third brother Narayanrao, who had not been arrested, wrote the first of six letters to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, seeking the latter’s help and advice in securing the release of his two elder brothers in response to a royal proclamation of an amnesty to political prisoners.

Gandhi, in his reply on January 25, 1920, advised Narayan Savarkar to “frame a petition setting forth the facts of the case bringing out in clear relief the fact that the offence committed by your brother was purely political.”

Two months later, Savarkar filed a fresh petition dated March 30, 1920 requesting royal clemency. On May 26, 1920, Gandhi wrote in his weekly journal Young India, “Thanks to the action of the Government of India and the Provincial Governments, many of those who were undergoing imprisonment at the time have received the benefit of the Royal clemency. But there are some notable ‘political offenders’ who have not yet been discharged. Among these I count the Savarkar brothers…Both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas…”

“They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British…I hold therefore that unless there is absolute proof that the discharge of the two brothers…can be proved to be a danger to the State, the Viceroy is bound to give them their liberty,” wrote Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works, Volume 20-Page 368).

Savarkar was released from Cellular Jail and shifted to a prison in Ratnagiri district in May 1921, released from jail in 1924 and interned in Ratnagiri. In May 1934, Savarkar was arrested again in connection with shots fired at a military officer Sweetland in Bombay by Wamanrao Chavan, who was a firebrand Sanghatanist [member of the Hindu Mahasabha] from Ratnagiri. Savarkar wrote from Ratnagiri prison on May 8, 1934, that he had nothing to do with the boys, Waman Chavan and GajannanDamle; the latter had been arrested because Chavan had kept his trunk at his place…He further said that he was prepared to cease taking part in any agitation, social or political without the previous sanction of the Government.”

It was a Congress Government in the Bombay Presidency in 1937 which released all political prisoners, including Savarkar. Gandhi, criticised for not signing a memorandum demanding release of Savarkar in 1937, said it was pointless because all political prisoners were to be released.

“Perhaps, Dr. [Narayan] Savarkar will bear me out when I say that I did whatever was in my power after my own way to secure their release. And the barrister [Vinayak Savarkar] will perhaps recall the pleasant relations that existed between us when we met for the first time in London and how, when nobody was forthcoming, I presided at the meeting that was held in his honour in London.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 65, Page 421), he wrote to a Congress leader in Bombay.

The correspondence disproves the twist that the Defence Minister gave to Gandhi’s intervention (See Box).

Savarkar’s mercy petitions: Truth vs Hype

While Sampath claimed on Twitter, “Gandhiji advised Savarkar brothers to file a petition and even made a case for his release through an essay in Young India on May 26, 1920,” critics and historians alike were quick to point out that while Gandhi did intercede on their behalf in 1920, he could not have suggested the language used in the petition. Gandhi’s great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi recalled that Gandhiji had refused to apologise and seek clemency to be with his wife when she was unwell in South Africa.

Historian and author S. Irfan Habib maintains that Gandhiji was just being kind. “In the Young India essay of 1920, Gandhiji actually confirmed that the Savarkar brothers were not going to work against the British government. He clearly wrote that the brothers ‘do not entertain any revolutionary idea and if they were set free, they would work under the Reforms Act’,” he pointed out.

It was not really an essay as claimed, but a letter to the Viceroy demanding the release of the Savarkar brothers on the ground that they were political prisoners against whom charges could not be proved, and they were not likely to take to violence.

“Gandhiji was merely being kind and generous. Savarkar’s Hindutva credentials had not come to the fore yet. RSS had not yet been formed,” professor Habib said.

Prof Mridula Mukherjee, historian and former Director of Nehru Memorial and Library, is not surprised at the controversy. BJP and the RSS, she says, are desperate to have a revolutionary icon of their own. Several groups were fighting against British Rule. The Indian National Congress, Socialists, the Revolutionaries and others. RSS was neither a part of any of those streams nor did they launch any movement of their own, she points out.

“Congress launched Swadeshi Movement in 1905, Non-Cooperation movement in 1920, Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930-32 and the Quit India Movement in 1942. But which were the movements launched by the RSS? None,” she adds.

Savarkar is, however, the only person ‘who could be half an icon for them’, she concedes.

His role in conspiring to kill British officials was established and he was sent to the Cellular Jail in Andaman. But he sullied his own record by writing mercy petitions from 1911 onwards. Which nationalist did that? Only a handful of the thousands of political prisoners who languished and died in the Cellular jail, wrote mercy petitions. Who remembers their names?

Prof Mukherjee is not convinced by the claim that the mercy petitions were part of a strategy. “If that were true, what did he do after getting out of jail? From 1924 to 1937 he was restricted to Ratnagiri district, given a bungalow and a pension by the British and prohibited from participating in politics,” she says while citing the Congress govern-ment’s role in releasing Savarkar.

“After that which anti-British politics did Savarkar engage in? None. He publicly supported the British on various issues including the war effort during the second world war,” she pointed out.

Savarkar is an icon for BJP-RSS, not because he was a nationalist but because he is the author of Hindutva. It is their compulsion to impose him as a nationalist icon. But it is not easy because of the taint on him due to his involvement in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and his association with the assassin.

His involvement in Gandhi’s murder is much more than just “Godse was inspired by his views.”

Savarkar financed a newspaper which Godse set up in Pune. Home Minister Sardar Patel was convinced that the conspiracy was hatched by a group at the HMS directly under Savarkar. In 1969, the Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission found enough evidence against him. Even the RSS kept its distance from Godse and Savarkar till recently. It co-opts and disown them as per its convenience.

HMS was forced to dissolve itself and go underground after Gandhi’s murder due to massive public anger. Syama Prasad Mukherjee set up a new party called Bhartiya Jan Sangh to avoid the taint of Mahatma’s assassination. For the next 40-odd years, they kept a low profile and Savarkar was not even mentioned anywhere by them publicly. When BJP was set up in the 1980s they claimed it was a Gandhian and Socialist party and there was no mention of Hindutva. It is ironic that the RSS now needs Mahatma Gandhi to legitimise Savarkar.

“Rajnath Singh’s comment was just a calculated move to create a myth about Gandhi and Savarkar’s alleged close relationship,” prof Mukherjee quipped.

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Published: 26 Oct 2021, 2:55 PM