Veer Savarkar : Brave By Half

By Ram Puniyani

The film on Savarkar was due to be released in 2001. The film even before its release had created lot of ripples of excitement. It probably was the first major venture eulogizing the pioneer of Hindutva ideology. One is aware that any objective discussion on Savarkar is filled with lot of emotional outbursts as he has been iconized amongst sections of population as the ‘brave’ freedom fighter. He also gets the prefix of ‘Swatantra Veer’ (Brave warrior for Freedom), which is only half true.

One needs to look at the trajectory of his life to understand this transition from anti-British revolutionary to the ideologue of Hindutva. Savarkar’s life underwent major transition during his confinement in Andamans. He was a changed man after the period of his jail life. He was a committed anti-British revolutionary prior to his deportment to Andamans but later he never associated with anything even remotely sounding as anti-British.

He had gone to study law in London and due to his anti-British stance he was denied the barrister-ship. In England Savarkar formed ‘Free Indian Society’ committed to overthrowing British rule in India. That time he rejected the British proposal to give the undertaking not to participate in politics. His group had learnt the art of bomb making from a Russian revolutionary in Paris. One member of the group killed a top-ranking official in India office (London) and was sentenced to death. For involvement in this and for another charges on him in Indian courts, Savarkar was arrested, sentenced and was to undergo life imprisonment. He was deported from England. The ship carrying him stopped at Marseilles, where he jumped into the sea and swam to the shore to claim asylum on French soil. He was captured back and was transported to Andamans for life imprisonment.

The conditions in Andman jail were very painful and he was had to suffer severe torture like other prisoners there. It seems that conditions of jail life broke his spirits. Incidentally from 1920 Indian National Congress was asking for his unconditional release, but due to reasons best known to him Savarkar preferred to give a written undertaking to get released from the jail – “I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by and I feel myself duty bound to uphold law and constitution (British, added) to the best of my powers and am willing to make the ‘reform’ a success in so far as I may be allowed to do so in future” (from facsimile of Savarkar’s letter to British authorities, Frontline, April 7, 1995. Pg. 94). The reforms he is referring to here are the Montagu Chelmsford proposals of 1919, which did not satisfy the nationalist movement’s demands.

In response to this, as a trade off, the British Government released him. First he was put in Yervada jail and later allowed to stay with his family in Ratnagiri. The condition was that he will stay in Ratnagiri district in Bombay province and will seek permission of the government to leave the district. Also that he will not engage in any public or private political activities without the consent of the government. The period of conditions lasted till 1937, when the Congress ministry was sworn in and lifted this condition. Subsequent to this he assumed the office of the President of Hindu Mahasabha. This aspect of his total surrender is totally hidden by the Hindutva forces; they confer on him the epithet of ‘Veer (brave) Savarkar’.

Why did British government release him? How is it that after his release the track of his politics totally changed and he came to adorn the mantle of ideologue Hindu Rashtra? How is it that later he never undertook any anti British agitation? How is it that he never joined and supported the major movements of those times like Quit India movement? How is it that instead of being the part of freedom struggle, he chose to help the British in recruiting Indians for their army? One can have ones’ own inferences but his compromise with British hides lot of messages about the nature of his politics from then on.

He did emerge as the undisputed leader of Hindu Mahasabha. In most of the times, post-1937, his politics was the polar opposite of National movement led by Gandhi and ‘no support to Congress move’ was his basic dictum. This can be best exemplified in the 1942 Quit India movement, when Gandhi gave the call for the people to leave the government jobs. Instead Savarkar issued the edict – “I issue this definite instruction to all Hindu Sanghathanists in general holding any post or position of vantage in the government services, should stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties”. (Quoted in A. G. Noorani Frontline, Dec. 1, 1995). Also working committee had passed a resolution on August 31, 1942 asking all Mahasabhaites to remain at their jobs.

Savarkar does have the ‘honor’ of brewing Brahminical Hinduism with nationalism, and he was the first exponent of the doctrine of Hindutva. Savarkar’s initial anti-British struggles were very impressive but after assuming the role of the proponent of Hindutva his major energies were channelized instrengthening the politics of hate, formation of communal Hindu Mahasabha and helping RSS from distance. Savarkar’s work `Hindutva: Who is Hindu’ (1923) became and remains the basic text defining this political concept. With the parallel and simultaneous rise of Muslim communalism, in due course most of the Hindu consolidations took place by showing the fear of Muslims. This nationalism consolidated itself on the ground of the ‘threatening other’, but this threatening other was not the British imperialist colonizers whose rule the country was suffering but was the `Muslim’.

As an aside we should note here that Savarkar’s anti-British struggles and anti-British activities totally ceased after his release by the British, and from then on all his guns were to be targeted against the Muslims. Savarkar argued (later on this became the ideological base of most of the Hindutva organizations) – “the Aryans who settled in India at the dawn of history already formed a nation, now embodied in the Hindus…. Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love they bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through their veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affection warm but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization, our Hindu culture.” (Hindutva, Page108) Thus Hindutva according to him rests on three pillars: geographical unity, racial features and common culture. He further went on to elaborate the criterion for who is Hindu?

According to him all those who regard this land as their fatherland and holy-land are the only ones who are Hindu and thereby the people to whom this land belongs. This led to the automatic interpretation that the Christians and the Muslims, whose holy places are in Jerusalem and Mecca are not on par with the Hindus' who 'own' this country. Initiating the theorizing of thedoubting of patriotism of Muslim’s’, Savarkar states – “but besides culture the tie of common holy-land has at times proved stronger than the claims of a motherland. Look at Mohammedans: Mecca to them is a sterner reality than Delhi or Agra.”

Savarkar’s politics was rival to Gandhian politics. Gandhi – the representative of Indian Nationalism was branded by Savarkar as conciliator and appeaser of Muslims. Savarkar propounded that struggle for supremacy would begin after British left and that the Christians and Muslims were the real enemies who could be defeated only by “Hindutva”. He maintained that this land belonged to Hindus and so by implication Muslims with Holy Land in Mecca and Christians with Holy land in Jerusalem cannot have equal status to `Hindus’.

It is also worth remembering, that murderer of Gandhi, Godse was his ardent follower. Savarkar himself was the co-accused in Gandhi murder, but was let off as Godse took the whole responsibility of this murder totally on his own self and there was no corroboration of the charges against Savarkar.  While the film and the present projection of Savarkar is going on, one has also to assess his role in second half of his life. An honest assessment of our past will show us the different versions of Nationalism and their political stance. The present hysteria of paying blind obeisance to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar should not come in the way of objectively assessing his changed role in later part of his life.