The book helps unravel the enigma called Savarkar, who comes out as an organic whole. His mercy petitions and bravado no longer contradict his personality.



New Delhi: History is often written—and rewritten—by victors. What else could explain the phenomenon of America being discovered by Columbus? When was it lost, after all, to be discovered—or rediscovered for that matter? But then this was the case. Because the Europeans were powerful enough to rewrite the history of the time. This very phenomenon explains, in the Indian context, the invention of the Aryan invasion theory, wherein a horde or hordes of Aryan tribes invaded the Indian landmass and pushed the vanquished, who were supposedly the real inhabitants of the country, down south. The theory created a win-win scenario for the colonial masters. For, it not just justified the rule of the British (after all, they seemed to be imitating what the Aryans had done a few thousand years ago), but also created the divide between the North and the South. Later, when the invasion theory couldn’t sustain itself in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, the vested interests—first the colonialists and later the communists who found it relevant to justify their ‘class war’ hypothesis—quietly modified the stand and turned it into a migratory phenomenon.

One person who exposes the ills of this victory-takes-it-all history writing, especially in modern India, is Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He confounded as much as he aroused curiosities. He was Mahatma Gandhi’s biggest rival, politically as well as intellectually. Yet, he has been pushed to the margins of the dominant freedom struggle discourse. He is regarded as one of the most vocal proponents of Hindutva, but this didn’t stop him from challenging the divined status of the cow which, for him, was “an appropriate symbol of our present-day weakness”. He worked tirelessly, especially after coming out of the Yervada Jail in 1924, for the Hindu cause. Still, he had an uneasy relationship with the RSS. Interestingly, some of the noted communists like M.N. Roy and S.A. Dange were inspired by him, and “there are references of how Bhagat Singh was deeply influenced by a small English biography of Savarkar that he read in the Dwarkadas Library of Lahore”. For his audacity and courage, he was given the title of ‘Veer’. Yet, he has often been accused of ‘timidly’ writing ‘mercy petitions’ to the British government. While his admirers extol his bravery and greatness, critics slam him as a cowardly traitor, murderer and a communal bigot.

So, who was Savarkar? Was he just the sum total of contradictions, like his long-time nemesis, Gandhi, who was disdainfully described by Sir Vidia Naipaul as a “bits-and-pieces” man? Or, was it all an act of grand distortion orchestrated by his powerful opponents and critics both before and after Independence? It’s this profound and contradicting duality—real or projected—that makes Vikram Sampath’s new book, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, so exciting and relevant. The book, by consciously steering clear of the two extremes, sets straight several misnomers about Savarkar on whom accounts have “oscillated from glorifying hagiography to reproachful demonisation”.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

Without doubt, Sampath’s is a sympathetic account of Savarkar, but that doesn’t stop the author from casting a critical eye on him. This objective assessment helps unravel the enigma called Savarkar, who comes out as an organic whole. His mercy petitions and uncompromising bravado no longer contradict his personality. Sampath refers to Savarkar’s memoirs, My Transportation for Life, written just a few years after his release in 1924, where he disapproves of “the non-violent mode of struggle that was being propagated by Gandhi”. This stands in a sharp contrast to his petitions where he declared his “support for ‘constitutionalism’, ‘non-violence’ and ‘reforms’”. Explains Sampath, “These seemingly contradicting stands lead one to believe that the petitions were a mere tactical ruse to secure a release and therefore plan a future strategy. Nothing substantial could be achieved by being holed up in jail.” Is this any surprise for the ardent follower of Krishna which Savarkar was?

Savarkar was an alleged atheist and a staunch rationalist who strongly opposed orthodox Hindu beliefs and traditions. He decried the caste system and dismissed cow worship as a mere superstition. Yet, Savarkar was one of the most vocal political voices for the Hindu community. This may on the surface sound contradictory but that’s where lies the fallacy of Indian liberals who seem to be convinced that being an ardent Hindu is synonymous with illiberalism. The fact is historically, a Hindu can be an agnostic or even atheist without losing his Hindu-ness. In fact, of the six major schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy, there is one in the Samkhya school that denies the existence of God! And, of course, there were the Charvakas.

The high point of the book, however, is the exploration of the relationship Savarkar and Gandhi shared. Both spent significant times outside mainland India—Gandhi in London and South Africa, while Savarkar in London first and then over a decade in the dreaded Cellular Jail of the Andamans. They were both avowed Hindus, though their approach differed radically. In fact, Gandhi was more orthodox and conservative than Savarkar. Both passionately favoured Hindi over other languages. Both wrote books in the same year, 1909, that were banned by the British—Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and Savarkar’s First War of Indian Independence on the 1857 uprising. It is believed that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj was a direct response to Savarkar. Likewise, Savarkar’s 1923 treatise Essentials of Hindutva was the first organised intellectual assault on Gandhi’s conciliatory and pacifist philosophy.

Sampath brings alive on the pages the first time the two giants met when Gandhi came calling to London’s India House and reached out to Savarkar for a political discussion. Savarkar was, at that time, busy cooking. “Cutting him short, Savarkar asked him to first have a meal with them. Gandhi was horrified to see the Chitpavan Brahmin, Savarkar, cooking prawns. Being a staunch vegetarian, Gandhi refused to partake. Savarkar apparently mocked him: ‘If you cannot eat with us, how on earth are you going to work with us? Moreover, this is just boiled fish; while we want people who are ready to eat the British alive’,” writes the author.

It was the beginning of the great rivalry which intensified during Gandhi’s Khilafat movement. Sampath wears a historian’s hat perfectly when he punctures “the widely held narrative” that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre led to the birth of the Non-cooperation Movement. “In the Amritsar Congress held in 1919, barely five months after the genocide, Gandhi himself advocated complete cooperation with the British in the wake of the reforms initiated in the royal proclamation and the Government of India Act, 1919,” writes the author who quotes B.R. Ambedkar as saying that “the non-cooperation had its origin in the Khilafat agitation and not in the Congress movement for Swaraj: that it was started by the Khilafatists to help Turkey and adopted by the Congress only to help the Khilafatists: that Swaraj (Self-Rule) was not its primary objective, but its primary objective was Khilafat and that Swaraj was added as a secondary objective to induce the Hindus to join it”.

Confined in a jail, Savarkar was outraged to see Gandhi playing with the Islamist fire in the name of the Khilafat movement. The Mahatma assumed the leadership of the movement, with “such tenacity and faith”, as Ambedkar put it, “which must have surprised many Muhammadans themselves”. While Gandhi thought the pan-Islamic movement would unite Hindus and Muslims and in turn bring Muslims into the mainstream of India’s freedom struggle, the outcome was just the opposite. The failure of the Khilafat movement saw a series of communal clashes across the country, the worst being in Malabar where Gandhi’s “brave, God-fearing Moplahs” committed the genocide of Nairs.

Savarkar’s Hindutva was an answer to Gandhi’s Khilafat-kind of experiment. Also, as Sampath recounts, his harsh experiences at Andaman’s Cellular Jail shaped his outlook. Yet, Savarkar remained a modernist and condemned irrational religious practices. So much so that when Gandhi attributed the massive 1934 Bihar earthquake to God’s punishment for “the barbaric caste system”, he reminded about what the Mahatma’s “inner voice will tell us about why Quetta was rocked by an earthquake”!

Last but not least, Savarkar’s life is a stark reminder of where the country’s liberals have gone wrong and how selective their outrage have often been. For, Savarkar, despite his flaws and follies, should have been an ambassador of the liberal/secular brigade. But what’s worse is their failure to stand up for the rights of those perceived to be closer or even sympathetic to Savarkar. “Legends abound about how several eminent people lost their jobs, livelihood and reputation for demonstrating the least of associations with him,” informs Sampath as he recounts how his biographer, Shivarampant Karandikar, was “so frustrated that he wanted to burn all remaining copies of the book”. And he wasn’t an exception. The true test of liberalism lies in defending those who belong to the opposite camp. Stand up with James Laine and Wendy Doniger, but Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen too shouldn’t be left out. Liberalism can’t be selective. Else, that is anything but liberalism.

There are many biographies on Savarkar, but Sampath’s account stands out for its unbiased research and gripping narrative of the freedom fighter who has been wronged immensely. Savarkar was a true patriot, and as Sampath desires at the very beginning of this book, his legacy should not become “political footballs in the ugly arena of toxic public life”. Bharat Ratna or no Bharat Ratna, this great revolutionary at least deserves that.