Centenary of an epic leap: L’affaire Savarkar
by Shreerang Godbole on 08 Jul 2010 4 Comments

R.M.S. Morea

Launched in 1908, the Morea (164.53 m length, 18.65 m breadth and 7.53 m in depth) was considered the best-looking liner of her class. She had been fitted with the Marconi system of wireless telegraphy in 1909. As Savarkar was a prisoner, he was given a second class cabin and European clothes to wear. As Power was in charge of his security, he too had been given second class. Though Edward Parker of the Scotland Yard was entitled to a first class, he preferred to travel with Power by second class. Two deck passages had been assigned to the two native escorts. Thus, Savarkar, Power and Parker shared a central second class cabin. 


This cabin had no porthole and had four beds; Savarkar and Parker would sleep on the two beds below. Power would sleep on the bed above that of Savarkar. During meals, Parker and Power would sit on either side of Savarkar. After meals, Savarkar would often take rest in his cabin for hours and would spend his time reading or sleeping. He would usually retire at 9 p.m. Savarkar was free to visit any of the nine water closets (W.C. lavatories). The two native escorts would lay their beds on a platform outside the water closets. He would be taken on to the upper deck for exercise (walking). Up to this time, he was not handcuffed. 


Savarkar would often pretend to be asleep and then see how closely the accompanying police officers and guards were watching him. He was careful not to seek information about passing ports lest it should arouse suspicion. En route in the Bay of Biscay, the ocean became turbulent and passengers were thrown around. Seizing this opportunity, Savarkar dashed himself against a porthole and measured it (Joshi V.S. Krantikallol, Marathi, Manorama Prakashan, Mumbai, 1985, p 375). Its diameter was 12 inches. As per his measurements taken on 10 February 1911 as a ‘criminal’, Savarkar himself was five feet two and half inches in height, his chest circumference was 32 inches and collar size was 13 inches. As Police Inspector Kennedy of Bombay Police was to remark later, ‘Mr. Power was intimately acquainted with the active movements and the lithe and slender physique of Indian natives!” (Sonpatki, ibid, p 97).


On 5 July 1910, the Morea reached Gibraltar but halted there only for 3-4 hours. It was impossible for Savarkar to escape at that time. After the Morea resumed her journey, her connecting rod broke down a short distance from Marseilles. Under these circumstances, the Morea reached Marseilles at 10 am on 7 July 1910. The need for repair work caused the Captain to dock her a little closer than normal to the coast. 


A Commissaire of the French Police came on board the vessel shortly after her arrival at port and in accordance with the orders of the Prefect placed himself at the disposal of the Commander in respect of the watch to be kept; in consequence, this Commissaire was put into communication with the British Police Officer who, with other Police Officers, was in charge of Savarkar (The Savarkar Case, ibid, p 254). The French official did not say a word to Savarkar who could not speak French (Sonpatki, ibid, p 94). 




Friday 8 July 1910! Savarkar woke up at 6 am. The ever alert Parker also got up. Savarkar requested that he be taken to the lavatory. Parker would keep his watch on the table between their beds. He asked Savarkar the time. Savarkar replied it was 6.15. Parker asked Savarkar to wait for some time. Savarkar repeated his request at 6.30. It must be noted that Savarkar betrayed no sign of excitement and did not press Parker when the latter had asked him to wait. Who can imagine the turbulence raging in Savarkar’s mind at that time? 


Parker now responded to Savarkar’s request. Savarkar now wore his dressing gown over his night dress. John Power was fast asleep all this while. Seeing Savarkar and Parker approach the lavatory, the two native guards got a start. They started hurriedly changing into uniform. By this time, Savarkar had already entered W.C. number 2. Parker also relieved himself and asked Amarsingh and Muhammad Sadiq to keep a watch on Savarkar while he himself went back to his cabin. Savarkar divested himself of his dressing gown and put it over the glass window on the door of the water closet. He latched the door and started to crawl through the porthole.


Outside, the two guards were becoming restless. Amarsingh stood on the ledge and tried to look over the top of the door. Muhammad Sadiq went on his knees and tried to peer from below. When they realized that Savarkar was trying to escape, they tried to break open the door but only succeeded in opening the glass. Their effort was in vain. Savarkar had escaped. 


Savarkar swam a short distance of around 10-12 feet and climbed up the quay wall (vertical distance of some 9 ft) by riding on rings fixed to the quay (Sonpatki, ibid, pp 97-98). Later accounts that gunshots were fired at Savarkar or that he was swimming nude or swam for several miles have no factual basis. The importance of Savarkar’s escape does not lie in the duration or the distance he swam. Savarkar’s greatness lies in the fact that he courted arrest to prove his bravery and leadership, but once that was done, he made a laughing stock of the British Government in trying to escape. In seeking asylum on French soil, he was challenging the law-abiding credentials of the British Government in the international arena!


Savarkar having succeeded in effecting his escape, swam ashore and began to run; he was arrested by a brigadier (Pasky) of the French maritime gendarmerie and taken back to the vessel. Three persons, who had come ashore from the vessel, assisted the brigadier in taking the fugitive back. From the statements made by the French brigadier to the Police at Marseilles, it appears: that he saw the fugitive, who was almost naked, get out of a porthole of the steamer, throw himself into the sea and swim to the quay; that at the same moment some persons from the ship, who were shouting and gesticulating, rushed over the bridge leading to the shore, in order to pursue him; that a number of people on the quay commenced to shout Arrêtez-le; that the brigadier at once went in pursuit of the fugitive and, coming up to him after running about five hundred metres, arrested him… the brigadier declares that he was altogether unaware of the identity of the person with whom he was dealing, that he only thought that the man who was escaping was one of the crew, who had possibly committed an offence on board the vessel… with regard to the assistance afforded him by one of the crew and two Indian policemen, it appears from the explanations given on this point, that these men came up after the arrest of Savarkar, and that their intervention was only auxiliary to the action of the brigadier. The brigadier had seized Savarkar by one arm for the purpose of taking him back to the ship, and the prisoner went peaceably with him. The brigadier, assisted by the above mentioned persons, did not relax his hold, till he reached the half deck of the vessel. The brigadier said that he did not know English. From what has been stated, it would appear that the incident did not occupy more than a few minutes” (The Savarkar Case, ibid, pp 253-254).


Reporting on the subsequent events, Gaelic American (30 July 1910) reports, “It appears that when his escape was discovered cries of “Voleur! Voleur!” (Thief! Thief!) were raised by the British police who set out in chase. This caused all the French police to join in and the prisoner was finally caught after a hard run that quite exhausted him… After capture by the French police, the Quartermaster of the Marseilles Maritime Police, instead of taking him to the Prefecture to be dealt with according to International usage, he having been captured by foreign police on French soil, allowed him to be taken away on board the British steamer. The matter was taken up by his friends in Paris, and is now under consideration of the French government, in whose hands they have left it. We are informed that the French police received “gratification” from the British Consul of Marseilles for acting as they did.”


The entire incident took about ten minutes. In fact when Pasky, Amarsingh and Muhammad Sadiq came with the captured Savarkar back to the cabin on the Morea, Parker was busy shaving and Power was still fast asleep! 


Attempt to hush up


The sensational event remained hushed up for three full days till finally it was dismissed in a few lines in the Paris edition of the Daily Mail of 11 July 1910. There was a tremendous furore in the French press and French Socialist circles. The Socialist paper L’Humanite at once published a forceful article on July 12 and passed the following strictures on the French authorities in Marseilles: “This abominable violation of the right of asylum was effected in absolute secrecy; had it not been for a telegram published yesterday (July 11th) in the Paris Daily Mail we should still have been in ignorance of the incident. But it is quite impossible that the matter can be allowed to rest here. In delivering up a political refugee the Marseilles authorities – admitting that they had acted on their own initiative – have committed an outrage of which account will most assuredly be demanded and in respect of which the sanction of the State itself is necessary.” French national papers of other parties –L’Eclaire Le Temps, Le Matin – presently joined L’Humanite in declaring the arrest of Savarkar on French soil to be an international scandal and a violation of the right of asylum (Yajnik, ibid, pp 288-289).


International outcry


Savarkar’s extraordinary heroism at Marseilles was applauded by the impartial press of the world. His whole career, his patriotic exploits in India and England were recounted at great length everywhere. Indian circles in Paris were naturally stirred into great ferment. The historic Indian trio in Paris – Shyamji, Ranaji and Madam Cama – quickly assembled together and spent days discussing the subject with Monsieur Jaures, the great Socialist leader, Frédéric Jean Laurent Longuet (grandson of Karl Marx), and other influential French politicians. They were all quickly convinced of the very serious error committed by the Marseilles police and resolved to compel the French Government to officially demand the return of Savarkar to the free soil of France. (Yajnik, ibid, p 289)


The Gaelic American (13 August 1910) summarizes the mood thus, “The developments in the case of the Hindu student, Savarkar, who escaped from the custody of his police escort on board the British steamer Morea, while the vessel was lying in dock at Marseilles, France, on her way to India, have raised the matter of his unauthorized restitution by a sergeant of gendarmes to the British police, to the status of an international question. This was admitted in the British House of Commons on July 21 by the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, who, in reply to a question by a member, admitted that the British Government had been “approached” by the French Government on the subject, but that he could not make any statement till the facts and points involved had been considered.


“Later information says that the French press has taken the matter up very warmly, and, from the Socialist paper, L’Humanite, to the highly conservative Journal des Debate, has expressed the opinion that Savarkar must be returned to France and set at liberty. “This,” the latter paper says emphatically, “is necessary to the credit of Great Britain, which was the first of all the European States to offer shelter to political refugees.” The Siecle which, with the Temps, has generally condemned British action in Egypt and in India, whilst encouraging the leading Nationalist of both nations, comes to the same conclusion, but in continuing its comments says that the Savarkar affair is a sharp reminder of the international importance of the Indian question. It proceeds: In Europe we do not look upon things from quite the same point of view as in England or in India. We do not ask when it may be that the Hindus may defeat Great Britain, but we attempt to discover whether four or five years when the superiority of the British navy over that of Germany will have become slight, India may not be able to keep fully occupied the whole of the expeditionary force of which Mr. Haldene speaks, so that it would be difficult to guarantee the defence of British territory, and radically impossible for the British army to intervene on the continent…For the safety of the British domination in India we must wish for something else than pitiless repression. The policy of the “big stick” is good only for the nations without ideals, for a tyranny can last only so long as it creates victims.


“The Éclair speaks of British rule in India being maintained by brutal repression, summary convictions and executions, and goes on to say: We may disapprove of such employment of force: it is not our business to prevent it. But we must not afford help to Britain in her police persecution. Now, unhappily, it seems a mistake has been made in recent affair, that of the arrest on French territory of a Hindu Nationalist, Mr. Savarkar… We gather from the various statements relative to the affair that the English detectives seeing Savarkar swimming away in the harbour, cried out, “Thief!” At the refitting dock a sergeant of the maritime gendarmerie arrested him and gave him back to the detectives when he should have handed him over to the Special Commissary of the Port.


“The sergeant of the gendarme in question committed a grave error; he is not in the service of foreign detectives; and it is inadmissible that on a false accusation of theft, a French official should authorize the extradition of a foreigner, above all when it concerns someone who is persecuted for his political opinions, and whose sole crime is that he desires his country to free itself from the tyranny of England.


“The Temps, which may be regarded as the leading paper in Paris if not also in France, after some hesitation, was obliged to admit that in surrendering Savarkar to his pursuers, the French police had violated the Right of Asylum, attributing their action at the same time to ignorance. The Socialist paper, L’Humanite, while severely criticizing this qualifying of the police error, expresses its satisfaction that the Temps and itself stand on the same ground on the question of the Right of Asylum.


“The action of the French Government in the matter seems to have been of such a character that the British Government, much as it would like to gratify its savage instincts, will feel compelled to accede to the French demands, if only to prevent a breach in the entente, which is one of England’s props in international affairs.


“In concluding we cannot omit to notice the suppression of all reference to this Savarkar affair in New York papers. It almost looks as if the word had gone out from the Hebrew Under Secretary for India in London to the American press agencies and the London correspondents of American papers to shut down this incident.”


Even The Nation, London was constrained to observe, “The French democracy, which has always defended Russian refugees against the continual machinations of its great ally, is not at all disposed to be more complaisant towards themselves, partly from a genuine love of liberty, partly from a proper national pride, partly also from a profound distrust of the French police, the advanced parties in France will fight this case with all the passion and vivacity which they favourably bring to bear on simple human issues. We must be prepared, if we insist on refusing to surrender Savarkar, to see ourselves pilloried day by day in the friendly French press. That would be no argument for yielding if we were right; but most clearly we are in the wrong” (Gaelic American, 3 September 1910)


Farce of International Arbitration


The French Government did not lose much time informally – though somewhat reluctantly –demanding the return of Savarkar from the British Government. Whitehall on the other side first tried to make light of the demand, bandied about specious arguments and tried to make of it a purely domestic issue with which France had no right to interfere. When the French Government called Britain’s bluff, the latter was compelled to agree to refer the question to the arbitration of the Hague Tribunal (Yajnik, ibid, p 289). Pending the decision, no sentence passed upon Savarkar was to have any effect beyond his retention in custody. The Special Tribunal at Bombay decided that the jurisdiction of the Indian Court to try Savarkar was not affected by any questions of the legality of his re-arrest at the French port.


“By an agreement dated the 25th October 1910, the Government of the French Republic and the Government of His Britannic Majesty agreed to submit to Arbitration the questions of fact and law raised by the arrest and restoration to the mail-steamer Morea at Marseilles, on the 8th July 1910, of the British Indian SAVARKAR, who had escaped from that vessel where he was in custody; and the demand made by the Government of the French Republic for the restitution of SAVARKAR; the Arbitral Tribunal has been called upon to decide the following question: Should VINAYAK DAMODAR SAVARKAR, in conformity with the rules of international law, be restored or not be restored by His Britannic Majesty's Government to the Government of the French Republic?” (The Savarkar Case, ibid, p 251). 


The Arbitral Tribunal was composed of five arbitrators chosen from the members of the Permanent Court at The Hague. The two Contracting Parties were to settle the composition of the Tribunal. Each of them could choose as arbitrator one of their nationals. The tribunal consisted of five members, one each from Belgium, England, France, Norway and Holland.   The sessions began on 14 February 1911, and ended 17 February 1911, the decision being rendered 24 February 1911.


The decision of the tribunal was a foregone conclusion. As Gaelic American (25 March 1911) remarked, “What chance a political prisoner has before the Hague Tribunal of Arbitration when the parties in interest have a friendly alliance is exemplified in the case of Vinayak Savarkar. The majority of the court was favourable to Great Britain and it was unanimously decided that France had no claim on the prisoner.” The Hague Tribunal observed, “while admitting that an irregularity was committed by the arrest of Savarkar, and by his being handed over to the British Police, there is no rule of International Law imposing, in circumstances such as those which have been set out above, any obligation on the Power which has in its custody a prisoner, to restore him because of a mistake committed by the foreign agent who delivered him up to that Power.” The Tribunal concluded, “The Arbitral Tribunal decides that the Government of His Britannic Majesty is not required to restore the said Vinayak Damodar Savarkar to the Government of the French Republic” (The Savarkar Case, ibid, p 255).


The actions of the French make it clear that they were very aware of the Asylum law. They sent an official on board to prevent Savarkar's escape. For after escape, it was going to be too late. That is why ashore the police had no idea of Savarkar's presence.


Also, where were the preparations that the French superior said he would make? The simple fact is that he could not make any without breaking the International Law.


Also, the French official aboard should have asked for Savarkar’s return immediately, for he certainly knew the truth - why didn't he? Why did he not contact the police ashore? Why did the tribunal not bring it up? If the French government knew (according to the telegrams) of Savarkar's presence on the Morea and likely escape plan, they should have had protection for him when he touched the shore. So it seems the French Government was not altogether innocent when it returned Savarkar to the ship. The whole thing was quite orchestrated.




The Gaelic American (27 August 1910) reported, “The Indian political refugee who escaped from the steamer Morea in Marseilles harbour last month, and was illegally restored to his English escort by a French Gendarmerie official, arrived at Bombay on the morning of July 22 on the steamer Salsette. The prisoner was landed at the Government dockyard and driven in a taxi-cab to the Victoria Terminus, where he was placed in a prisoner’s third-class carriage attached to the Delhi Express Mail. The train reached Nasik at noon, where Savarkar was to be detained pending trail by the Special Tribunal on a charge of abetment of murder. The arrangements made for Savarkar’s landing and his dispatch to Nasik were kept strictly secret. The intention of the British Government is apparently to railroad the trial and conviction while the demand of the French Government for his surrender is being held up.”


The failed escape attempt by Savarkar at Marseilles is comparable for sheer audacity and daring, only to Shivaji’s successful flight from Agra. While Shivaji went on to become a sovereign Hindu king, Savarkar went on to face imprisonment and hardship both in British and free India. Despite attempts by vested interests to suppress Savarkar’s name and fame, like Shivaji, he shall continue to rule over Hindu hearts. Further, his action at Marseilles shall be cherished by all freedom-loving people throughout the world.



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.

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