Centenary of an epic leap: L’affaire Savarkar
by Shreerang Godbole on 07 Jul 2010 2 Comments

Savarkar’s historic leap into the ocean off the coast of Marseilles, France, on Friday, 8 July 1910 is a watershed event in the history of our Freedom Movement. Savarkar’s daring escape and arrest on French soil became a cause celebre in the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Hague (later, International Court of Justice). The extraordinary chain of events starting with Savarkar’s extradition from Britain to India on board the S.S. Morea (1 July 1910) and culminating in the award by the Arbitral Tribunal (24 February 1911) was referred to as ‘The Savarkar Case’ and “L’affaire Savarkar’ by British and French chroniclers of the time. L’affaire Savarkar catapulted the issue of India’s freedom to the international plane. As we observe the centenary of that momentous event, it is worth recalling its details.




On 26 May 1906, Savarkar left India for England after securing ‘The Shivaji Fellowship’ announced by Sardar Singh Rana. Savarkar’s name had been recommended to Shyamji Krishnavarma of the India House, London, by no less a person than Lokmanya Tilak who, as per Shyamji’s instructions, also paid Rs. 400 to Savarkar. Though Savarkar had ostensibly gone to London to become a Barrister, he soon became the fiery leader of the Indian Revolutionary Movement in England. Among other things, he penned ‘The Indian War of Independence, 1857, by an Indian Nationalist’ and a Marathi version of Mazzini’s autobiography with a memorable 26 page introduction. 


The Rowlatt Committee (1918) that evaluated “political terrorism in India” summarized some of Savarkar’s activities thus: “In February of that year (1909) Vinayak Savarkar, who had obtained from Paris a parcel of twenty Browning automatic pistols with ammunition, sent them out to Bombay concealed in the false bottom of a box…” These pistols had been discovered in different parts of India, situated as far as Nashik and Kolkata; one of them was later used by Dhingra to assassinate Curzon Wylie. Savarkar had also secured the manuscript of a bomb manual that Hem Chandra Das had secured with the help of some Russian revolutionaries. “Savarkar’s copy contained forty-five sketches of bombs, mines and buildings to illustrate the text” said the Rowlatt Committee report. 


The conviction of elder brother Ganesh (9 June 1909), assassination of Sir William Curzon Wylie by Madan Lal Dhingra (1 July 1909), Dhingra’s martyrdom (17 August 1909), assassination by Anant Kanhere of A.M.T. Jackson, the District Magistrate of Nashik who had committed Ganeshpant Savarkar to trial (21 December 1909), were events that followed in quick succession and in Savarkar’s words proved that “India is advancing and the Hindu race is not dead”. 


Savarkar’s political leadership of India House had come to the notice of British authorities. On 13 May 1909, benchers of Gray’s Inn charged Savarkar (and Harnam Singh) with various offences such as sedition and trying to overthrow the Government of India established by law. Though the benchers could prove none of the charges, they decided that Savarkar would not be called to the Bar. The following telegram dated 15 March 1909 from the Viceroy to the disciplinary committee of Gray’s Inn shows how keen the British Government was to punish Savarkar, “ Reuter wired 7th March that Benchers, Gray’s Inn, had postponed calling to the Bar two Indian students owing to connexion with Indian sedition. If either student is V.D. Savarkar, this connexion is undoubted. We are sending by this mail important documents establishing his active participation in seditious movements.” (Mukund Sonpatki, Daryapar, Marathi, Purandare Prakashan, Pune, 1980, p 20-21). 


Recently (12 June 2010), this writer wrote to the archivist of Gray’s Inn inquiring the availability of original documents. He got the following reply (14 June 2010) from the archivist of Gray’s Inn, “Thank you for your enquiry. I can confirm that further to various charges made by the British authorities against Savarkar (who had indeed been admitted to Gray’s Inn on 26 June 1906), the Inn enquired into his activities, and that his call to the Bar was postponed, in accordance with a decision of the Bench of 14 July 1909. The Inn did not remove his membership, but he subsequently withdrew from the Inn at his own request: this request to withdraw was received and allowed on 16 March 1910. Unfortunately the Inn was heavily bombed during World War II and virtually all documentation relating to individual students was destroyed, including that relating to Savarkar. I would be willing however to extract for you the relevant entries in the surviving minutes of Pension, the Inn’s governing body, which summarise the formal process of the Inn’s enquiry. This is unlikely to contain much information with which you are not already familiar, but will at least provide an accurate timescale as far as Savarkar’s connection with the Inn is concerned.” This writer is hopefully waiting for further information to be unearthed. 


After his brave public support to Dhingra at Caxton Hall (05 July 1909), Savarkar had become a marked man in the eyes of the British authorities. Darkness seemed to envelope him on personal and public fronts. 


Savarkar’s elder brother had already been sentenced to Transportation for Life in the Andamans and his entire property had been confiscated. His younger brother Narayan was on the brink of arrest. The responsibility of the household rested on the shoulders of his sister-in law Yashodabai (Yesuvahini) and wife Yamunabai (Mai). His only son, Prabhakar aged four had died in 1909. The trial and execution of Dhingra spelt the doom of “The House of Mystery” as India House was referred to in the British Press. Shyamji now shifted to Paris. In Shyamji’s words, “we felt that he (Savarkar) was no longer safe in England and we besought him to quit “Perfide Albion” without delay… After repeated appeals he was at last persuaded to come to Paris and we were delighted to know that our young friend was safely in our midst, free from the clutches of his relentless enemies…the probability was that the alien oppressors of our country would take good care to put him out of the way, fearing lest an active and capable young man of his temperament might wreak a righteous vengeance.” (Indulal Yajnik, Shyamji Krishnavarma: Life and Times of an Indian Revolutionary, Lakshmi Publications, Bombay, 1950, p 286). [‘Perfidious Albion’ is a hostile epithet for Great Britain; perfidious signifies one who does not keep his faith or word; Albion is the ancient Greek name for Britain – Editor]


It is worth noting that before acceding to Shyamji’s requests, Savarkar had publicly celebrated Dassara in London on 24 October 1909. The meeting was attended by Muslims and Christians as well and was chaired by Gandhi, who remarked that it was an honour for him to get an opportunity to sit next to Savarkar and that he had experienced what is referred to as inspiring oratory. Despite tremendous physical and mental strain and afflicted with pneumonia, Savarkar started writing a 200 page Marathi book on the history of the Sikhs during his recuperation in Wales. He finally left London for Paris on 6 January 1910. 


Fearless return to London


By November 1909, the Bombay Government was seriously considering Savarkar’s arrest. The Jackson murder in Nashik led to widespread arrests and extreme torture of youth in Maharashtra. On 1 February 1910, preliminary investigations into the Jackson murder came to an end. The police established that the weapon used for the murder had been sent from London by Savarkar. The magistrate ordered that Savarkar be arrested on charges of sedition, waging war against the Government and conspiring to overthrow it. He also invoked the Fugitive Offenders’ Act 1881 against Savarkar and sent a copy to the Bow Street Magistrate so Savarkar could be arrested in London.


But Savarkar was in Paris. He could not sit quiet. He organized meetings of revolutionaries in Paris, administered pledges to Indian youth, studied biographies of Garibaldi, read the third volume of Mazzini’s writings and completed his Marathi book on the history of the Sikhs. He continued to write inflammable letters to India and send Browning pistols. But Savarkar was still restless. He told Shyamji he wanted to return to India and prove his leadership. Knowing that arrest in India and subsequent prolonged imprisonment was imminent, Shyamji and Madam Cama pleaded with him to reconsider his decision. Shyamji told him: “You are a general and must not rush to the firing line with the rank.”


But Savarkar replied, “But it is only by fighting first by their side in the firing line that I can prove my worth of being exalted to the position of a general: otherwise every one would think himself, by a deceptive notion of ones self importance, to be as indispensable as a general and thus claim to remain at the Headquarters. Then who would fight? Will not, moreover, this kind of argument serve the cowards as a handy shield to hide their fear?” (Chitragupta, The Life of Barrister Savarkar, p 130-131; according to one version, this was a nom de plume of Savarkar himself). 


Seeing that he would not budge, Madam Cama finally pleaded with him to return to London as the judicial system was fairer there. Savarkar told himself, “I must have work! If not India I must go to England. I must risk even as my followers have done and show that I cannot merely sacrifice but even suffer. If I get arrested, well that would be the real test of mettle, I have bragged of being pledged to face imprisonments, exiles, tortures, death in the cause of the Independence of my Motherland. Now is the time to test myself if I could bear a part of these calamities and still stand unmoved and faithful to my Faith. Youngsters who took lessons at my feet have braved the gallows and kept their pledge of fighting even unto death; should their trusted teacher and guide and friend and philosopher keep running away from shore to shore and leave them all lurch shielding myself to work greater wonders? The first great wonder that I must work is to prove my capacity and ability to work wonders by standing by guns and if the worst comes to the worst face arrests and tortures and still stand unshaken and immoveable and if possible try to frustrate the foes by effecting my release or stay out all their tortures or in the end die fighting. If I survive in spite of risking and come out unscathed from the ordeal then I might hold myself justly entitled to spare me as a general without the least danger of demoralizing either myself or my followers. Well if I dont survive I shall have kept my word, my pledge of striving to free India even unto death and leave a glorious example of martyrdom which in these days of mendacity and cringing political slavery is one thing wanted to fire the blood of my people and to rouse and enthuse them to great deeds. A great martyrdom: some grand example of utter sacrifice and willing suffering: and India is saved. No amount of cowardly tactics in the name of work can whip her back into life. I will risk, will myself pay the highest price—then alone I shall have right to exhorted others to risk and suffer and pay.” (Chitragupta, ibid, p 135-136). 


Savarkar finally decided to return to London in spite of the misgivings of his associates. He was fully aware of the Fugitive Offenders’ Act that had been slapped on him; coming to London was an act of uncommon bravery! On 13 March 1910, Savarkar left Paris and reached Newhaven on the south coast of England. From there, he boarded a train to Victoria Station, London. He was promptly arrested at the station itself after a brief struggle. He was shown an Indian warrant charging him with sedition and inciting to murder in India.  Savarkar merely smiled and said, “Yes, sir”. He was taken to the Bow Street Magistrate. A search of his belongings revealed nationalist books, newspaper cuttings, photographs of Mazzini and Madan Lal Dhingra, his writings on Garibaldi and a paper with code language. The police tortured him to decode the paper but Savarkar did not yield. 


Extradition to India


The well-known English author David Garnett who had befriended Savarkar stated in his autobiography The Golden Echo (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1954, p 153), “From the point of view of the government his arrest was peculiar and required careful handling. They had evidence of his connection with the murder of Mr. Jackson at Nasik, but were not prepared to charge him with it. For the murder occurred while Savarkar was in London and he ought, therefore, to be tried in London. If he were tried in England on, let us say, an incitement-to-murder charge, he would, if convicted, get a sentence of two or three years. If he were tried in India, it would be another matter. The authorities were therefore trying to extradite him to India, but to do so they had to dig up, or manufacture, evidence of crimes committed while he was in India, carefully avoiding reference to the crimes he might have committed in London. This took some time, and while the case was being prepared, Savarkar had to be brought up at Bow Street week after week and remanded, bail being refused.


Eventually, the Indian authorities dug up some speeches that Savarkar had delivered in India several years before, and for which they had had ample opportunity to prosecute him at the time. They then applied for his extradition on that evidence only. The evidence was thin, for the speeches had been delivered at a time when the political atmosphere in India was completely different. The speeches, which had not been thought worth prosecuting him for at the time, had become seditious as the ferment of unrest increased in India.”


“The English proceedings” as Savarkar’s English friend Guy Aldred (the first Englishman to court imprisonment for the cause of India’s freedom) remarked, “at the Bow Street Police Court, the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal were characterized by the usual illegality. The English Government had determined on Savarkar’s return to India…The Courts decided that had there been no abetment of murder charge, it would have been harsh to have sent him to India on the sedition charge. On the other hand, it urged that since the speeches – on which the sedition charge was based – were delivered in Hindustani it was fairer for him to be tried in India. This was the opinion of the Lord Chief Justice. Mr. Justice Coleridge dissented from sending Savarkar to India but waived his dissent as a minority view.” (Yajnik, ibid, p 287).


That the British authorities were planning Savarkar’s extradition to India soon after his arrest is evident from a letter (dated 26 March 1910) written by Asst. Police Inspector Guyder of Bombay Police to Deputy Superintendent C.I.D. Charles John Power who was leaving Mumbai for London with an arrest warrant for Savarkar. Power was to be accompanied by three police jamadars Amarsingh Sakharamsingh Pardeshi (an erstwhile member of the Savarkar’s secret society Mitra Mela, Muhammad Sadiq and Usman Khan; the last died after reaching London). The warrant was given to Power on 8 February 1910 (Sonpatki, ibid, p 90).


Savarkar was remarkably composed in prison. When his associate Niranjan Pal asked him why he had knowingly courted arrest despite the advice of his compatriots, Savarkar replied bravely, “I came to London to be arrested, because my shoulders are broad enough to bear the consequences.” His Marathi poem ‘Maazhe mrityupatra’ (My Last Testament) composed in Brixton Jail and addressed to his sister-in-law is immortal in the annals of Marathi literature. To his associate VVS Aiyar who met him in prison, Savarkar said that propaganda for the country’s freedom should continue.


Attempts to free Savarkar 


On 20 March 1910, a committee had been formed under the Chairmanship of VVS Aiyar to secure Savarkar’s release. Savarkar’s friend David Garnett, then just eighteen, too had thought of a plan. Savarkar was taken every week to Bow Street in a taxi for the formalities of a remand. He was accompanied by one, or sometimes two, detectives. His going up for a weekly remand had become a routine matter and he was taken from the prison at the same time, within two or three minutes. The essence of Garnett’s plan was that Savarkar was to be rescued at the prison gates, or within a few yards of them. A watcher would note when the taxi which was to take him to Bow Street drove up. A car would then drive up to the prison with supposed visitors, who would overpower the detectives, and Savarkar would jump in the car, which would drive off with him.


The essential feature of the rescue was that the rescuers should not seek to avoid arrest, or to escape themselves. Garnett planned to get two men from Paris who would willingly go to jail for long periods in order to rescue Savarkar. Garnett decided that the best plan was to bring them into England on a yachting trip, land them early on the morning of the rescue, drive them straight to Brixton, rescue Savarkar, drive back with him, embark him and sail to France. Garnett’s intention was to arm the rescuers with bags of pepper and loaded truncheons. He discussed the plan with Savarkar who approved of it. Garnett bought a disguise consisting of a motoring hat and veil, then commonly worn by female motorists, for Savarkar. The plan miscarried but Savarkar remained calm as ever. He told Garnett, ‘Do not worry about me. I shall escape somehow. I have a plan worked out already, in case your plan failed” (Garnett, ibid, pp 154-160).


That Savarkar was also devising a plan of his own to escape is evident from the conversation he had with Aiyar when the two met in Brixton Jail. Mindful of the presence of the prison guard, Savarkar told Aiyar, “If allowed, can have an interview at Marseilles!” By April 1910, Scotland Yard had decided to arrest Aiyar himself as Savarkar’s right-hand man. Aiyar got wind of this plan and met Savarkar for the last time on 18 April 1910. Sensing that this was probably going to be their last meeting, both became emotional. But Savarkar controlled his emotions and told Aiyar, “No. we have read the Gita! We must not weep in the presence of these unsympathetic crowds.” 


Aiyar left for Paris on the following day. Aiyar and Madam Cama had also devised a plan to free Savarkar at Marseilles where the liner carrying Savarkar would be anchored. But Scotland Yard had got wind of this plan. The Scotland Yard report dated 24 June 1910 notes that before the Morea had left Tilbury, the London Police had been told that Aiyar and his friends planned to meet Savarkar for the last time in Marseilles and were keen to know the name of the boat carrying him. Accordingly, they desire to go to Marseilles to meet Savarkar (Sonpatki, ibid, p 92). 


By a letter, dated the 29 June 1910, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London informed the Directeur de la Sûreté générale at Paris that the British-Indian Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was about to be sent to India, in order to be prosecuted for abetment to murder etc., and that he would be on board the vessel Morea touching at Marseilles on the 7th or 8th July. In consequence of the receipt of this letter, the Ministry of the Interior informed the Prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhône, by telegram dated 4th July 1910, that the British Police were sending Savarkar to India on board the steamship Morea. This telegram stated that some ‘révolutionnaires hindous’ then on the Continent might take advantage of this to further the escape of this foreigner, and the Prefect was requested to take the measures necessary to guard against any attempt of that kind. 


The Directeur de la Sûreté générale replied by letter dated 9th July 1910 to the letter of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, stating that he had given the necessary instructions for guarding against any incident during the presence at Marseilles of the said Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, on board the steamship Morea (Reports of International Arbitral Awards, The Savarkar Case (Great Britain, France), 24 February 1911, Volume IX; pp 243-255, United Nations 2006).


Having thus sensed that attempts would be made to free Savarkar, the police handcuffed Savarkar when he was brought to the Court for the last time and deployed heavy security. 


The final arrest warrant was issued on 21 June 1910 by Winston Churchill and the decision to extradite Savarkar to India to stand trial finalized. Detective-Inspector Edward Parker of Scotland Yard, Deputy Superintendent C.I.D. Charles John Power and the two native escorts were to accompany Savarkar on the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company’s passenger liner Morea that was built for long distance mail service (hence called RMS for Royal Mail Ship or SS for Steamship Morea). 


Savarkar wrote a final letter titled ‘Farewell’ to his comrades. The four-paragraph letter is an example of poetic prose! “In order to prevent any demonstrations the greatest care was taken to keep the movements of the prisoner secret. Savarkar was removed from Brixton Prison on Thursday (30 June 1910) evening and lodged in a cell in Cannon Row Police Station. On the following afternoon he was taken by Detective-Inspector Parker and two officers of the Indian Police to Westminster Pier, which is only about 200 yards from the police station. Here the party embarked in a small steam launch and was taken down the river Tilbury, where the P. and O. liner Morea was lying out in the river. The Morea sailed during the afternoon, with Savarkar and the police officials on board.” (Gaelic American, New York, 23 July 1910)


(To be continued…)

The author is a Pune-based endocrinologist. He contributed to making www.savarkar.org. He wishes to place on record the contribution of Anurupa Cinar, USA in making available some of the reference material used in this article and providing some insight into the Hague trial

User Comments Post a Comment
Comments are free. However, comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate material will be removed from the site. Readers may report abuse at  editorvijayvaani@gmail.com
Post a Comment

Back to Top