On Savarkar, Civil Society and Marathi Social Media step in to set the record straight

Marathi social media is flooded with references to Savarkar calling himself ‘veer’, consuming beef, getting convicted for attempted rape and mocking ‘cow worship’ as intellectual bankruptcy

V.D. Savarkar
V.D. Savarkar

Sujata Anandan

Those who expected Maharashtra to erupt in righteous indignation after Rahul Gandhi once again referred to ‘Veer’ Savarkar’s mercy petitions to the British and his loyalty to the colonial masters, have reasons to feel disappointed. An unexpectedly large section of Marathi civil society and social media in fact have come out in support of Rahul Gandhi’s comment on Savarkar during the Maharashtra leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

People have been quick to point out that Savarkar wrote a biography of himself under the pseudonym of ‘Chitragupt’ and called himself ‘Veer’. Most of the admirable qualities about him came from his own writings, points out Twitter user Gaurav Sabnis. A century of glamourisation of Savarkar, he however concedes, through elocution contests and fancy-dress competitions during Ganapati festivals, has made him an icon for a large section of Marathi Brahmins. 

But harder the RSS and BJP tried to sanitise Savarkar’s past, more of his shortcomings have come to light.  Retired justice of the Bombay High Court BG Kolse Patil accused BJP of creating a deliberate controversy over Savarkar to divert attention from the issues being raised by the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

“Savarkar deserves every criticism that comes his way for he was against the Indian Constitution; he favoured the British to stay back in India and not give us our freedom, he thought our Constitution was poisonous for the country. Why then should anybody be afraid of criticising Savarkar,” he wondered aloud.

Savarkar’s first conviction in 1908, Marathi social media recalled, and for which he was imprisoned for four months was for the attempted rape of a British woman named Margaret Lawrence – and that he had confessed to the crime. 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in his book 'Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History', Savarkar advocated the rape of “enemy” women, enemy in this context meaning Muslim women. In the same book he also labelled Chhatrapati Shivaji a fool for honourably returning to her family the captured daughter-in-law of the Adilshahi governor of Kalyan, without violating her. 

These were early signs of a flawed and complex human being. Nobody doubts his role as a ‘violent’ freedom fighter before 1909. Nor is there any dispute about the fact that he was sent to the Cellular Jail in Port Blair in Andaman. But so were hundreds of other political prisoners ( the prison had over 600 cells and lists exist of over 400 political prisoners from Punjab , Bengal and other states), many of whom were tortured to death.  

After he was sentenced to two 50-year jail terms in 1910, the flaws in his character surfaced. He did not apparently join other political prisoners when they protested and fasted and according to some accounts, he was spared hard work and worked as a clerical assistant to prison officials. He wrote as many as five letters of apology seeking clemency and assuring his loyalty to the British empire. He promised to serve the interests of the British after his release from prison and when Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was leading the Indian National Army against the British, Savarkar was busy helping the British recruit Indians into the British army to defeat ‘the enemies of the British’, meaning those fighting for the liberation of India. 

What is possibly even more embarrassing to the RSS, Savarkar made fun of people who treated the cow as a mother. He had consumed beef in England, justifying the act by saying that he ate only a British cow, not an Indian cow - only the Indian cow could be considered holy, he suggested. But in the 1930s, when the editor of the Marathi magazine Bhaala declared that the true Hindu was one who considered the cow as his mother, Savarkar responded by saying “If the cow is mother to anybody at all, then it is only the bullock and not the Hindus. Hindutva, if it has to sustain itself on a cow’s legs, will come crashing down at the slightest crisis.”

Savarkar mocked cow worship as “buddhi hatya” (intellectual bankruptcy). He was virulently opposed to consumption of gomutra and gobar and said, “We need not worship the cow but care for the cow” in the interests of agriculture and economics. That is an opinion that most scientists or even liberal democrats can find no fault with but something the RSS ideologues will have great difficulty explaining away.

Curiously, the unsavoury details about Savarkar, his life and politics began surfacing after 2014 when BJP and the Sangh began maligning Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other freedom fighters. In a long Twitter thread, Rajan Mhapsekar recalled in Marathi that when he was in school during the Congress regime, Savarkar received respectful mention in history textbooks along with Gandhi and Nehru. His own history teacher, a Congress supporter, never trashed Savarkar and treated the man with the respect due to a freedom fighter, he writes.

“My teacher taught us Savarkar’s poems with emotion. When he described to us how Savarkar had escaped (from a British vessel at sea near Marseilles on the French coast), his rendering of the escapade gave all of us goose bumps. We grew up with the image of Savarkar as a patriotic poet and among the best of freedom fighters,” he recalls.

But post-2014, when BJP tried to trash Gandhi and Nehru and uphold Savarkar as the true Hindu freedom fighter, liberals responded by highlighting the lesser-known facts about Savarkar and removing the blinkers from people’s eyes, he comments. 

In attempting to undermine the Congress and freedom fighters belonging to the Congress, Mhapsekar concludes, BJP succeeded in merely exposing its own icon. 

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