Savarkar and History: From Port Blair to recent wrangles
by B S Harishankar on 04 Jan 2020 35 Comments

In 1909, Mahatma Gandhi was invited by the Indian diaspora in the UK to attend a Dussehra function. It was attended by Savarkar, then a student in London. The two finally shared a stage. While Gandhi talked about Lord Ram as selfless and conciliatory, Savarkar spoke of Durga as destroyer of evil. Both pitched for an inclusive India where all religions live in harmony (When Mahatma Gandhi met Veer Savarkar, The Times of India, Sept 27, 2019).


Later, Gandhiji wrote an article titled “Savarkar Brothers” (Young India, May 26, 1920). Gandhiji wrote to C.R. Das, “The Savarkar brothers’ talent should be used for public welfare. One of the brothers I know well. I had the pleasure of meeting him in London. He is brave. He is clever. He is patriot. He was frankly a revolutionary… He is in the Andamans for his having loved India too much. Under a just government he would be occupying a high office. (Mahatma Gandhi Collected Works, Vol. 20, pp. 104-05)


There was much similarity in their idea of India as an ancient nation. Gandhiji eulogized our ancestors who established Setubandha (Rameshwar) in the south, Jagannath in the east and Hardwar in the north as places of pilgrimage and perceived India as one undivided land and hence one nation (Gandhi’s India: Unity in Diversity - Selections prepared by the National Integration Sub-committee of the National Committee for Gandhi Centenary 1968). Savarkar in Hindutva regarded as Hindus those who regarded the land of Bharatvarsha from Indus to the seas as pitrbhumi (ancestral land, natal land) and punyabhumi (sacred land).


Since the last decade, a new interest in Savarkar’s life and work has resulted in multiple dissertations and theses on the subject. In 2007, John Pincince submitted his dissertation, On the Verge of Hindutva: V.D. Savarkar, revolutionary, convict, ideologue, c. 1905-1924, to the University of Hawaii. In 2008, Juli Gittinger wrote her Masters’ thesis at the University of Colorado, Hindutva from Savarkar to Ayodhya: Phantasmic identity of Hindu Nationalism. Then came Julia Kelley-Swift’s thesis (2015), A Misunderstood Legacy: V.D. Savarkar and the Creation of Hindutva, at Wesleyan University.


A large number of Ph.D. dissertations on V.D. Savarkar in universities across the globe remain unpublished. They have not researched the involvement of V.D. Savarkar with Gandhi’s assassination, but discuss various themes associated with his life and philosophy in the anti-colonial context. John Princeton worked at the University of Hawaii (2007), Satadru Sen at the University of Washington (1998), Shefali Trivedi at Columbia University (2003), Manu Goswami at Chicago University (1998), Daniel Alan Jasper at New School University (2002) and Erin Kellie O’Brien at Calgary University (2006).


Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research, South Asia Democratic Forum, Brussels, received a Doctorate in Political Science from Heidelberg University for thesis, The Construction of a Collective Identity in India: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and his Hindutva-Concept (2009). Two contemplative works on Savarkar, published in 2019, by Vikram Sampath and Vaibhav Purandare, situate the revolutionary in a wider panorama.


Port Blair, where Savarkar was imprisoned in the Cellular Jail for 10 years, tremendously influenced his perspectives on national issues and penning of the work, Hindutva. Port Blair Airport, main airport of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, was renamed after V.D. Savarkar in 2002. We need to understand the Cellular Jail to comprehend what moulded Savarkar’s perspectives and his magnum opus, Hindutva.


The Cellular Jail received global attention after an article by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy that revealed previously unnoticed official records from the Jail and interviewed a number of former prisoners who had survived confinement there. Hundreds had tried to escape from the Andaman Islands; those who survived were routinely tortured and experimented upon by British army doctors who administered the colony, leading to thousands of deaths. 28 prisoners went on hunger strike demanding food, medical aid and basic humanitarian consideration. (Survivors of our hell, The Guardian, Jun 23, 2001)


According to the records of the Government of India’s Home Department, the Empire ordered the Provincial Governors and Chief Commissioners to make every effort to prevent the incidents from being reported, and no concessions given to the prisoners who ought to be kept alive. The colonial regime also ordered manual methods of repression, and mechanical when the prisoner resists.


On July 1, 1909, Sir William Curzon Wyllie, political aide de camp to the Secretary of State for India, was gunned down on the steps of the Imperial Institute, London. V.D. Savarkar was accused of providing the weapon. He was sentenced to a 50-year double term, deported to India and transported to the new Cellular Jail. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy report that Savarkar scratched out his story with a nail on to the walls of his cell (No. 52, Level Three, Yard Seven Wing).


On April 28, 1936, Sir Henry Craik, Home Secretary to the Government of India, visited Port Blair after reports of torture and brutality were published. In 1939, the Cellular Jail was vacated. In 1941, Japan seized the islands and transformed them into a war camp.


Philip Zimbardo and three other researchers made a comprehensive study on this subject in Stanford Prison Experiment, at Stanford University, in 1971. The findings of this experiment on the violent and pitiless nature of the colonial regime were shocking and controversial. Satadru Sen, in his unpublished Ph.D. thesis (1998, University of Washington), notes that near the middle of the 19th century the colonial government was acknowledging a mortality rate approaching 30 per cent among convicts at Port Blair. 


Julia Kelley-Swift observes that there is a surprising dearth of scholarly research about the psychological effects of imprisonment on prisoners in a hierarchical system such as that which Savarkar encountered in the Cellular Jail. The unique environment at Port Blair contained a complex dual hierarchy, placing Muslims above Hindus within a larger system that consigned political prisoners such as Savarkar to the bottom rung of the ladder. In, My Transportation for Life, published five years after his release from Cellular Jail, Savarkar notes that, “the Pathans, as a rule, were bigoted Mohamedans, and were especially notorious for their fanatical hatred of the Hindus. The Officers had pampered them to serve their own ends. To persecute the Hindus was natural to them… The Pathans, the Sindhis and the Baluchi Muslims, with a few exceptions, were, one and all, cruel and unscrupulous persons, and were full of fanatical hatred for the Hindus. Not so the Mussalmans from the Punjab, and less even than they, those of Bengal, Tamil province and Maharashtra.”


Swift observes that Savarkar was, “A revolutionary, certainly; a freedom fighter, no doubt; a religious zealot, however, he was not.” Experiences in prison caused Savarkar to emerge with a very different outlook. As Vikram Sampath highlights, Muslim warders and jamadars forbade Hindu prisoners from reading their scriptures. Hindus received few or no religious holidays, which were readily granted to Muslim inmates. Hindu prisoners deported to Andamans were converted to Islam and assumed Muslim names. Young Hindu prisoners were subjected to extreme physical torture and labour by Muslim jamadars. Converts were served Muhammadan food, possibly beef, without recital of Quran or offering of namaaz. The prisoners were registered under Muslim names, which stuck. In 1913, within 18 months of his arrival, Savarkar made an official complaint against this “conversion”. He was tortured and attempts on his life made by the Pathans. The superintendent who arbitrated the conversion complaint asked Savarkar why he could not reconvert them back to Hinduism. Savarkar replied Hinduism did not believe in conversions and hence it was impossible.


Savarkar kept a close watch on political developments in South Asia, especially the Khilafat movement. Khilafat meant the Caliphate, the global seat of Islamic power in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire in Turkey staked claim to be the fourth Caliphate in 1517, and controlled the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Turkish Caliph had allied with Germany against Britain in the First World War. The movement hoped to pressure the British government to preserve the authority of the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph of Islam after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the war. Khilafat leaders sent a delegation to London in 1920 to plead their case, but the British government treated the delegates as utopian pan-Islamists, and refused to change its policy towards Turkey.


The leaders of the Khilafat movement forged the first political alliance among western-educated Indian Muslims and Ulema over the religious symbol of the Caliph. This leadership included the Ali brothers (Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali), their spiritual guide Maulana Abdul Bari of Firangi Mahal, Lucknow, the Calcutta journalist and Islamic scholar Abu’l Kalam Azad and Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan, head of the madrasa at Deoband, Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. They viewed European attacks upon the authority of the Caliph as an attack upon Islam, and thus as a threat to the religious freedom of Muslims under colonial rule.


Europe had another grudge against Turkey. Constantinople, which bestrides Asia and Europe, was capital of the Byzantine empire, the greatest Christian city in the world. It was renamed Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453, and virtually all its cathedrals and churches, after being desecrated and thoroughly plundered, were converted into mosques. This included the renowned Hagia Sophia Byzantine cathedral.


At the Kolkota session on September 4, 1920, Gandhi persuaded Congress to support the Khilafat, in solidarity with the campaign launched by the Ali brothers, who were arrested for their campaign for the Caliphate.


Savarkar denounced Khilafat as an aafat, a calamity and a menace to the country, warning that a wave of fanaticism would sweep India and engulf it, with long term political consequences (Majhi Janmathep, first published in 1927). Immediately after his internment at Ratnagiri district ended, Savarkar started work on a Marathi novel on the bloody Moplah rebellion in Malabar: Mala Kai Tyache? (How Do I Care?), a comment on what he perceived as the average Hindu’s indifference to Islamic fundamentalism so long as it did not affect him or his family.


All these factors, especially Khilafat, led Savarkar to write his magnum opus, Hindutva, in 1923. He predicted that the Moplah riots in Malabar in 1921 were just a trailer of the trauma that would engulf India within a century. The work logically situates, defines, interprets and corroborates the term Hindu, calling for the political unification of Hindus in India.


Political psychologist Ashis Nandy suggested (“A disowned father of the nation in India: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and the demonic and the seductive in Indian nationalism”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 15, 2014, March 24, 2014) that Savarkar abandoned his revolutionary aims in jail and, through a series of petitions for clemency, essentially submitted to the will of the British government. In an interview with Ajaz Ashraf on April 4, 2015, Nandy (a Bengali Christian born in Bhagalpur, Bihar) spoke against the Sangh Parivar attacks on the Christian community and said the ghar wapsi programme will only increase conversions in India. He candidly said that the idea of suffering for Christ and Christian values is a major strand in Christianity (Ashis Nandy on being an Indian Christian, Julio Ribeiro’s pain and why he opposes conversion, April 4, 2015, Scroll). Nandy also said that Christians are predominantly Scheduled Castes and the attacks on them might have other political consequences, further dividing them.


But Ashis Nandy maintained silence on the widespread Christian attacks on Christian Scheduled Castes in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 2010 and 2015 as well as the increasing rapes of nuns in Kerala. At a panel discussion at the 2013 Jaipur Literary Festival, he made the controversial observation that, “Most corrupt people come from OBC, SC and ST communities. Delivering the 28th edition of the Samvatsar Lecture of Sahitya Akademi, Nandy described late M.F. Husain as the “most creative interpreter of Hinduism”. (Business Standard, March 10, 2015) In an interview with Outlook, Nandy observed that Savarkar is the new father of the emerging India, Gandhi is now the stepfather. (October 26, 2016)


It is worth noting that Savarkar openly acknowledges, in My Transportation for Life, the petitions that he sent as well as the discussion that he had with members of a Commission sent by the British Government to investigate conditions at the Cellular Jail. In a section of the conversation he quotes in his memoir, Savarkar addresses a plea for constitutional reforms, “The constitutional reforms will enable me to do some constructive work for the country. And I would try to do my work in a constitutional manner. If the reforms prove fruitful that way, and clear the path to the goal all have in view, a political revolutionary like myself will prefer that path to bloodshed and unnecessary murder.” Far from hiding his compliance with the British Government, Savarkar on this occasion openly suggests his willingness to cooperate for certain aims.


Savarkar’s biographers like Dhananjay Keer (1966) point out that this was a tactical move like Shivaji writing pliant letters to Aurangzeb to secure his release, and cannot be taken literally.


After Ashis Nandy, Savarkar’s most prominent critic is lawyer A.G. Noorani (Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection, 2002). Noorani’s recent work, The RSS: A Menace to India, was released by former Vice President Hamid Ansari on April 2, 2019, at New Delhi.


The Congress party’s recent attacks on Savarkar merit a look back at Indira Gandhi. In a letter written to the Prime Minister on May 8, 1980, Pandit Bakhle, secretary of the Swatantra Veer Savarkar Rashtriya Smarak, informed her of proposals for celebrating Savarkar’s birth centenary. In her reply dated May 20, 1980, Indira Gandhi wrote back, “I have received your letter of 8th May 1980. Veer Savarkar’s daring defiance of the British Government has its own importance in the annals of our freedom movement. I wish success to the plans to celebrate the birth centenary of the remarkable son of India”. (No. 836-PMO/80) The government had issued a commemorative stamp on Savarkar in 1970. Mrs. Gandhi even donated Rs 11,000/- from her personal account to the Savarkar Trust. She had also asked the Films Division to produce a documentary film on Savarkar which she personally cleared in 1983.


However, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, persuaded by the CPI(M) and a group of Delhi historians, wrote to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to review his decision to unveil Savarkar’s portrait in Parliament. CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee didn’t resist the idea of installing the portrait of Savarkar, neither did CPI’s J. Chittaranjan, one of the two members (the other being Pranab Mukherjee) of the joint committee on installation of portraits/statues of national leaders and parliamentarians in the Parliament House Complex.


Congress chief whip in the Rajya Sabha, Pranab Mukherjee and Congress deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Shivraj Patil, who agreed to install Savarkar’s portrait, were humiliated by Sonia Gandhi at a meeting of the Political Affairs Committee of the Congress in Parliament (Cong pushed on back foot as it comes to terms with Indira Gandhi’s endorsement of Savarkar India Today, March 10, 2003). Former Union information and broadcasting minister, Vasant Sathe, recalled that Indira Gandhi personally cleared the Films Division documentary on the freedom fighter. “Savarkar’s contribution to the freedom struggle has to be viewed in totality. You can disagree with his Hindutva, but you cannot ignore the fact that he was a great poet and a rationalist”.


President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam unveiled V.D. Savarkar’s portrait in the Central Hall of Parliament in February 2003. The Congress-Left stayed away from the function. The current controversy against conferring Bharat Ratna on Savarkar has also been manufactured by Congress and its favourite historians.

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