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How Savarkar Escaped Conviction For Gandhi’s Assassination

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar turned his back on his lieutenants in order to escape charges in Gandhi’s murder. But a commission established his guilt posthumously.

Stamps with pictures of Savarkar and Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stamps with pictures of Savarkar and Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is the second in a two-part series on V.D. Savarkar. Read the first part here.

Five months after India’s independence, on January 14, 1948, three members of the Hindu Mahasabha – Nathuram Godse, Narayan Apte and Digambar Badge, an arms dealer regularly selling weapons to the Mahasabha – arrived at Savarkar Sadan in Bombay. Apte and Godse were among the very few who “had the right to move immediately past that room up a flight of stairs to the personal quarters of the dictator of the Hindu Rashtra Dal,” according to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s book, Freedom at Midnight, written based on information acquired from in-depth interviews and extensive research of official documents including police records.

Badge, who did not have such unrestricted access to Savarkar, was told to wait outside. Apte took from him the bag containing gun-cotton slabs, hand grenades, fuse wires and detonators, and went inside with Godse. When the duo returned to Badge after 5-10 minutes, Apte was still carrying with him the bag of weapons, which he asked Madanlal Pahwa – an angry Punjabi refugee who had come from Pakistan after partition – and his seth, Mahasabha member Vishnu Karkare, to carry with them to Delhi.

Both Pahwa and Karkare had already visited Savarkar before Godse and Apte arrived at Savarkar Sadan with the weapons that day. According to Collins and Lapierre:

“Godse, Apte and Badge were not the first of their little group to penetrate the headquarters of Veer Savarkar that January day. Earlier, Karkare had ushered Madanlal into the master’s presence. Karkare had described the young Punjabi as ‘a very daring worker’. Savarkar’s response was to bestow one of his glacial smiles on Madanlal. Then he had caressed his bare forearm as a man might stroke a kitten’s back. ‘Keep up the good work,’ he had urged.”

Badge – who had known Savarkar since 1944-45 and Godse since 1940-41 – was asked by Apte the day after their visit to Savarkar Sadan if he would be willing to join them to Delhi. “Apte told me that Tatyarao (Savarkar) had decided that Gandhiji, Jawarhar Lal Nehru and [Huseyn Shaheed] Suhrawardy should be ‘finished’ and had entrusted that work to them,” said Badge – a co-conspirator in Gandhi’s murder who secured a pardon in exchange for turning into an approver and divulging the details of the conspiracy before the court.

After sorting out some household affairs in Poona, Badge returned to Bombay on January 17 to join them on their mission to Delhi. “Godse suggested that we should go to take one last ‘darshan’ of Tatyarao (Savarkar),” Badge testified. On entering the compound of Savarkar Sadan, Apte asked Bagde to wait in the room on the ground floor and went upstairs with Godse. When the two returned downstairs, they were followed by Savarkar who wished the duo: “Yashasvi houn ya (Be successful and come)”.

As the they left Savarkar Sadan, Apte told Badge in the taxi, according to his testimony:

Tatyaravani ase bhavisya kale ahe ki Gandhijichi sambhar varse bharali – ata apale kam nishchita hamar yat kahi sanhya nahi [Tatyarao (Savarkar) has predicted that Gandhi’s 100 years are over, there is no doubt the work will be successful].”

But successful it wasn’t in the first attempt made on Gandhi’s life three days later on January 20, in the Birla House in Delhi. The plan to assassinate Gandhi during his public prayer failed and Pahwa, who had set off a bomb near the podium over which Gandhi sat addressing the crowd, was arrested. The rest of the conspirators began their run from Delhi.   

“Madanlal was still loyal to his fellow conspirators,” Collins and Lapierre wrote.

“[He] was sure they would try again. He was determined to win them as much time as he could by refusing to talk (to the police)… Then, calculating that the others had by now had time to flee, he gave a harmless account of their activities in Delhi. Suddenly, in a moment of self-assertion, he… admitted he had been at Savarkar Sadan with his associates and boasted he had personally met the famous political figure.

At midnight the police ended their interrogation of Madanlal for the night and closed their first daily register of the case… They knew they were faced with a plot. They knew how many people were involved. They knew it involved followers of Veer Savarkar.”

The police informed Gandhi that Pahwa was not a lone wolf and that “there was a serious likelihood that others would try again.” The then DIG of Delhi, D.W. Mehra, insisted on the tightening security at Birla House and requested Gandhi for permission to search suspicious people coming into the premises to attend his prayer meetings.

“‘I will never agree,” Gandhi said in a sort of half shriek. “Do you search people going into a temple or chapel for prayer?’”

“No, sir,” Mehra replied, “but there is no one in them who is a target for an assassin’s bullet.”

“Rama is my only protection,” Gandhi retorted. “…The rulers of this country have no faith in my non-violence. They think your police guard will save my life. Well, my protection is Rama, and you will not violate my prayer meetings with your police.”

Gandhi’s unwavering faith in the Hindu god, Rama, was indeed a blind one, as the Hindutva fanatics demonstrated to the world a few days later, when Godse – after another long meeting with Savarkar 3 -4 days after the failed attempt – returned to Delhi and shot Gandhi thrice at point blank range on January 30, 1948.

Savarkar. Credit: Youtube

Savarkar. Credit: Youtube

A ‘fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar’ murdered Gandhi: Sardar Patel

On the February 22, Savarkar, who was by then held under detention, gave to the Indian government the same undertaking he had once given to the British Raj:

“I shall refrain from taking part in any communal or political activity for any period the government may require in case I am released on that condition.”

“The government had only to accept this humiliating and explicitly open-ended offer if its aims were political,” lawyer and historian A.G. Noorani said. But “[t]hey were not.” The Delhi police arrested Savarkar the following month. A special court, headed by Justice Atma Charan, was constituted on May 4.

Sardar Vallabhai Patel – then the deputy prime minister and Union home minister, and now a figure claimed by the Hindu Right as their own – was the chief prosecutor of the case, who was convinced of Savarkar’s guilt. In a letter he wrote to Nehru on February 27 that year, he clearly stated:

“It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.”

However, personal conviction would not compromise Patel’s commitment to due legal process. Allaying Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s concern that Savarkar “was being prosecuted on account of his political convictions,” Patel wrote a letter to him 20 days before Savarkar was named in the chargesheet, explaining:

“I have told (the Advocate-General and other legal advisers and investigating officers), quite clearly, that the question of inclusion of Savarkar must be approached purely from a legal and judicial standpoint and political considerations should not be imported into the matter… I have also told them that, if they come to the view that Savarkar should be included, the papers should be placed before me before action is taken.

But distinguishing the legal procedure he upheld from the personal conviction he harboured about Savarkar’s guilt, Patel added:

“This is, of course, in so far as the question of guilt is concerned from the point of view of law and justice. Morally, it is possible that one’s conviction may be the other way about (emphasis added).

Savarkar’s defence

Photo taken during the trial of the persons accused of participation and complicity in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in a Special Court in Red Fort, Delhi. The trial began on May 27, 1948. V.D. Savarkar, wearing a black cap, is seated in the last row, while Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte are up front. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Evidence found against Savarkar in Badge’s testimony included:

  1. Savarkar’s meeting with Godse and Apte on January 14, with the arms that were used in the first attempt against Gandhi’s life only a few days later,
  2. Apte informing Badge that Savarkar had decided that Gandhi had to be assassinated and had entrusted them with the task,
  3. Another meeting of Savarkar with Apte and Godse on January 17, when Badge witnessed Savarkar wishing the two: “Be successful and come back”.
  4. Apte telling Badge on leaving from Savarkar Sadan that Savarkar had predicted that Gandhi’s 100 years were over and there was no doubt the task (of assassinating Gandhi) would be successful.

Savarkar, in his skilful defence, pointed out that the meeting of Godse and Apte with Savarkar on January 14 cannot be established from Badge’s account, because he did not claim to witness the meeting itself. His account only mentioned that on the 14th, he arrived at Savarkar Sadan with Apte and Godse, where he was made to wait outside, while the two went in. Savarkar argued:

“Firstly…visiting Savarkar Sadan does not necessarily mean visiting Savarkar. Apte and Godse were well acquainted with Damle, Bhinde and Kasar who were always found there (in Savarkar Sadan)… So Apte and Godse might have gone to see their friends and co-workers in Hindu Mahasabha.”

After thus drawing other members of Hindu Mahasabha into the line of fire for his defence, Savarkar then went on to say, “Secondly… Apte and Godse deny it and state that they never went with Badge and the bag (of weapons) to Savarkar Sadan as alleged.”

With regards to Badge’s claim about Apte informing him that Savarkar had decided that Gandhi had to be assassinated, Savarkar said in his defence:

“..taking it for granted that Badge himself is telling the truth when he says Apte told him this sentence, the question remains whether what Apte told Badge is true or false. There is no evidence to show that I had ever told Apte to finish Gandhi, Nehru and Suhrawardy. Apte might have invented this wicked lie to exploit Savarkar’s moral influence on the Hindu Sanghatanists for his own purposes. It is the case of the prosecution itself that Apte was used to resort to such unscrupulous tricks. For example, Apte is alleged to have given false names and false addresses to hotel keepers.. and collected arms and ammunition secretly..”

After thus attacking Apte, who refused till the very end to admit in court that Savarkar had anything to do with the conspiracy, Savarkar then pointed out that in any case both Apte and Godse deny having told Badge that Savarkar had decided that Gandhi had to be assassinated. The same reasoning was again used to defend himself from Badge’s claim of having been told by Apte that Savarkar had predicted Gandhi’s time was up.

Photograph of the pistol used by the Hindutva activist Nathuram Godse to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry report, 1969.

His defence against one of the most crucial pieces of evidence – his meeting on January 17 and saying to Apte and Godse “Be successful and come back” – warrants longer quotations:

“Firstly, I submit.. that Apte and Godse did not see me on 17th January 1948 or any other day near about and I did not say to them, ‘Be successful and come back’… Secondly, assuming that what Badge says about the visit is true, still as he clearly admits that he sat in the room on the ground floor of my house and Apte and Godse alone went upstairs, he could not have known for certain whether they.. did see me at all or returned after meeting someone of the family of the tenant who also resided on the first floor of the house.”

After thus arguing that his testimony does not establish that Godse and Apte necessarily met him at Savarkar Sadan, he went on to make more concessions:

“Taking again for granted that Apte and Godse did see me and had a talk with me, still it was impossible for Badge to have any personal and direct knowledge of what talk they had with me for the simple reason that he could not have either seen or heard anything happening upstairs on the first floor from the room in which he admits he was sitting on the ground-floor. It would be absurd to take it as a self-evident truth that.. they must have talked to me about some criminal conspiracy only. Nay, it is far more likely that they could have talked about anything else but the alleged conspiracy.”

With regards to Badge’s testimony that he saw and heard Savarkar wishing Apte and Godse, “be successful and come back”, Savarkar told the court:

“Even if it is assumed that I said this sentence it might have referred to any objects and works.. Such as the Nizam Civil Resistance, the raising of funds for the daily paper, Agrani, or the sale of the shares of Hindu Rastra Prakashan Ltd.. or any other legitimate undertaking. As Badge knew nothing as to what talk Apte and Godse had with me upstairs, he could not assert as to what subject my remark “Be successful etc’ referred.”   

Robert Payne, in his book The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, summarised Savarkar’s defence as follows:

“He had never met with the conspirators; if he did then the meeting had nothing to do with the conspiracy; he never came down the stairs; if he did, and if he spoke the parting words, ‘Be successful and come back,’ then it must be understood that he was talking about something entirely remote from the conspiracy…Savarkar took each sentence (of Badge) out of its context and showed that it was devoid of any precise meaning.”

“The circumstantial evidence,” he noted, “was impressive, the story told by Badge was a convincing one.” Payne was not the only one who found Badge’s testimony convincing. Justice Charan also found Badge to be a truthful witness. The judge pointed out:

“(Badge) gave his version of the facts in a direct and straightforward manner. He did not evade cross-examination or attempt to evade or fence with any question. It would not have been possible for anyone to have given evidence so unfalteringly stretching over such a long period and with such particularity in regard to the facts which had never taken place. It is difficult to conceive of anyone memorising so long and so detailed a story if altogether without foundation.”

Photograph taken on the occasion of the final immersion ceremony of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi at Allahabad on February 12, 1948. Credit: Photo Division, GOI

Escaping the gallows

Nonetheless, some crucial parts of Badge’s testimony regarding the meetings on January 14 and 17 were not corroborated by the two witnesses produced in the court. One of them was an actress by the name of Shantabai Modak, who had met Apte and Godse on the Poona Express and then offered them a lift to Shivaji Park in the vehicle of her brother, who received her at Dadar Station on January 14. She told the court that:

“The two houses (that in which her brother lived and Savarkar Sadan) were on the right-hand side of the road. We passed.. (the) house in which my brother lives, and stopped the car opposite the Savarkar Sadan. The two gentlemen (Apte and Godse) got down. We then went ahead to turn the car and bring it back to my brother’s house. I saw the two gentlemen heading towards Savarkar Sadan.“

While this evidence establishes that Apte and Godse did get down from the car in front of Savarkar Sadan, the judge pointed out that it does not go so far as to establish that they “had got down in front of Savarkar Sadan to visit Vinayak. D. Savarkar… [N]ot only.. Savarkar but A. S. Shinde and Gajan Damle also resided in the Savarkar Sadan.”

Aitappa Kotian, the taxi driver who drove Godse, Apte and Badge to the meeting on January 17, was another witness produced by the prosecution. He testified:

“I.. stopped the taxi at the intersection of the second road on the south side of the Shivaji Park. The.. passengers got down from the taxi there. So far as I could see they went up to the second house from the corner of the road on my right (which was Savarkar Sadan).”

This evidence, the judge pointed out, does not corroborate the part of Badge’s testimony where he claims to have heard Savarkar saying “Be successful and come back” to Godse and Apte. In the absence of records that reveal the subject of the conversation that took place on the first floor between Savarkar, Godse and Apte, it cannot be presumed that Savarkar’s alleged remark was made in reference to the mission to assassinate Gandhi.           

“As is the case with most of the conspiracies, there is and could be no direct evidence of the agreement amounting to criminal conspiracy. However, the circumstances cumulatively considered and weighed, would unerringly point to… collaboration…. The incident… had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if … capital punishment is awarded…”

If the words above were written in the judgment by Justice Charan, Savarkar would not have escaped the gallows. But they weren’t. These words are from contemporary times – from the Supreme Court’s judgment indicting Afzal Guru. Justice Charan subscribed to a different school of legal thought which found it worthy to take the risk of letting a thousand criminals go unpunished in the process of ensuring that not a single innocent man is penalised.

Thus even though he regarded Badge as a truthful witness, in the absence of independent corroboration of some crucial parts of his testimony, the judge found it “unsafe” to convict Savarkar, in spite of the circumstantial evidence which Payne had found “impressive”. So it was that Savarkar was acquitted, while Apte and Godse were awarded death penalty.

“Hardly a parallel in cowardice”

Another view of the men charged with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi during their trial at the Red Fort in May 1948. Savarkar is in the last row. Credit: Photo Division, GOI.

“Nathuram… was deeply hurt by… Tatyarao’s [Savarkar’s] calculated, demonstrative non-association with him either in court or in Red Fort Jail,” wrote P.L. Inamdar in his memoirs, The Story of the Red Fort Trial, 1948-49.  The lawyer who defended two of the co-conspirators – including Nathuram’s brother, Gopal Godse – told his readers:

“How Nathuram yearned for a touch of Tatyarao’s hand, a word of sympathy, or at least a look of compassion in the secluded confines of the cells. Nathuram referred to his hurt feelings in this regard even during my last meeting with him at the Simla High Court.”

But during the trial, Savarkar did not even turn “his head towards.. Nathuram.. much less speak with him,” Inamdar wrote.

“While the other accused freely talked to each other exchanging notes or banter, Savarkar sat there sphinx-like in silence, completely ignoring his co-accused in the dock, in an unerringly disciplined manner.”

Commenting on Savarkar’s conduct during the trails, Noorani, whose academic preoccupation is the study of the trials of Indian political figures, wrote in his authoritative book Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection, “The annals of great trials provide hardly a parallel in cowardice and deceit.”

This ‘cowardice’ out of which Savarkar chose to disown his ‘lieutenant’ (as Godse’s brother said he was regarded) stands in stark contrast to the audacity of the Hindu Mahasabha today, which – perhaps emboldened by Narendra Modi government’s great respect for freedom of speech – has publicly announced its mission to install Godse’s idols in temples across the country.

Seventeen years after Godse was hanged – or “martyred”, as the Mahasabha tells us – Savarkar, then aged almost 83, renounced food and medicine in the beginning of February 1966 and died on February 26. But the truth about his role in Gandhi’s murder was not cremated with his body. Only three years later, evidence found by the Kapur Commission implicated Savarkar in Gandhi’s murder.

Kapur Commission, 1969, established Savarkar’s guilt

Cover of the Jeevan Lal Kapur Commission of Inquiry report.

When Godse’s brother was released from prison in 1964, a programme was held to commemorate him. There, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s grandson, G.V. Ketkar, boasted that he knew about Godse’s intention to kill Gandhi. What followed was a national controversy, which led to the setting up of a commission under Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur in 1969, with the mandate to investigate who all had prior knowledge of the plot to assassinate Gandhi, which authority they informed and what measures were taken by the authorities who received this information.

Two of Savarkar’s aides who hadn’t previously testified during his trials spoke up before the commission. Their statements not only provided an independent corroboration of the two meetings with Savarkar which Badge had referred to in his testimony, but also revealed that before carrying out the assassination, Godse and Apte had met Savarkar once again on January 23 or 24, after Madanlal Pahwa’s first attempt on Gandhi’s life had failed.

Based on the statements of Savarkar’s bodyguard, Appa Ramchandra, Justice Kapur stated in the commission’s report:

“On or about 13th or 14th January, Karkare came to Savarkar with a Puniabi youth (Madanlal) and they had an interview with Savarkar for about 15 or 20 minutes. On or about 15th or 16th Apte and Godse had an interview with Savarkar at 9.30 P.M. After about a week so, may be 23rd or 24th January, Apte and Godse again came to Savarkar and had a talk with him.. for about haIf an hour.”

Statements of Savarkar’s secretary, Gajanan Vishnu Damle, also corroborated the fact that Apte and Godse met Savarkar in the middle of January. Both their statements, as well as Badge’s testimony, indicated that Savarkar had lied before the court when he said, “Apte and Godse did not see me on 17th January 1948 or any other day near about (emphasis added).

Their statements not only established the close working relationship Gode and Apte had with Savarkar since 1946, the report said, but also provided evidence which shows that:

“Karkare was also well-known to Savarkar and was also a frequent visitor. Badge also used to visit Savarkar. Dr. Parchure (another accused for whom P.L. Inamdar won an acquittal) also visited him. All this shows that people who were subsequently involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi were all congregating sometime or the other at Savarkar Sadan and sometimes had long interviews with Savarkar. It is significant that Karkare and Madanlal visited Savarkar before they left for Delhi and Apte and Godse visited him both before the bomb was thrown and also before the murder was committed and on each occasion they had long interviews.”

After re-examining all the relevant information – old and new – unearthed by Bombay’s deputy commissioner of police, Jamshed Nagarvala, the Kapur commission concluded:

“All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group.”

Distortion of popular history 

The findings of Kapur Commission which implicated Savarkar in Gandhi’s murder did not, however, discourage the first BJP-led NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee from installing a portrait of Savarkar, alongside that of Gandhi, in the central hall of the parliament building in 2003.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi folding his hands in front of Savarkar's portrait on his birth anniversary in 2015. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Narendra Modi folding his hands in front of Savarkar’s portrait on his birth anniversary in 2015. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This move sent Vishwanath Mathur – a freedom fighter from Bhagat Singh’s party who had also served a sentence in the cellular jail – into a fit of rage. Describing Savarkar as a “coward being portrayed as a revolutionary”, Mathur protested:

“This government is determined to legitimise a symbol of national shame. Not only did he beg for mercy from the British and was an accused in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case, he was also a proponent of the two nation theory.”  

Neither do these findings of the Kapur Commission – or for that matter, the listing of the various incidents of Savarkar’s collaboration with the British – discourage Narendra Modi and other ministers in the government from celebrating Savarkar’s birth anniversary, year after year, and glorifying him as a great freedom fighter and a patriot.

Because allowing a truthful portrayal of the father of Hindutva ideology will invariably compromise the prospect of turning India into the Hindu rashtra he had envisioned. Spreading lies to counter historical facts and reinforce the myth of “Veer” Savarkar is therefore an imperative for the success of the project unfolding before us.   

As in previous years, May 28, 2017, the 134rd birth anniversary of Savarkar, once again provided a platform for Hindutva ideologues – inside and outside the government – to repeat the lies about their founding father. For “with sufficient repetition,” Goebbels had once said, “[i]t would not be impossible to prove.. that a square is in fact a circle.” Or, for that matter, that cowardice is in fact courage. That collaboration with the colonial government is the same as fighting for freedom. And that a sectarian ideologue who was prepared to go to any length to oppose those who stood for the unity of all Indians is in fact a great patriot and national hero.

Pavan Kulkarni is a freelance journalist.