Adapted from a translation of the Marathi original by Girish Vidyadhar Katre.
If we consider four iconic figures broadly associated with India’s national awakening and the fight against British colonial rule in India – Swami Vivekananda, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Mahatma Gandhi – Vivekananda is looked upon with immense respect and pride throughout India and nobody finds it necessary to denounce Gandhi or Savarkar while expressing their respect toward him. A similar feeling of respect prevails in the minds of all Indians about Ambedkar too, even if some of his disciples find it necessary to demean both Gandhi and Savarkar while offering respect to him.
However, the case of Gandhi and Savarkar is different. If you are an ardent follower of one, demeaning the other becomes a vital precondition. But in doing so, these disciples tend to forget that both these men of great accomplishments achieved unimaginable feats in comparison to all of us. Both of them went through unfathomable pain for the sake of winning freedom for their motherland. We surely have the right to say why we may not concur with either of them, but only after we make efforts to understand what each man stood for and actually did.
I find it necessary to comment on this issue mainly because of the comment made recently by the minister of defence Rajnath Singh. He said, “Savarkar tendered a mercy petition before the British Government at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi.” The minister also stated that it is wrong to believe that Savarkar never filed such mercy petitions, as thought by a large section of our society. Though Singh meant to defend Savarkar, the claim that he used to obey Gandhi’s instructions surely does injustice to Savarkar. Others have also questioned whether Gandhi really proffered such advice.
The story of Savarkar’s mercy pleas
Savarkar happened to file eight mercy petitions during his 12-year imprisonment from 1911 – 1923. The most significant among them was filed in November 1913. The spirit of the language used in this petition was full of modesty and regret. Savarkar stated in writing that he had committed a mistake earlier and that he was henceforth willing to adhere to the right path. These letters of requests were not mere letters of regret; they were filled with overwhelming assurances for the future and pleadings for mercy. During this whole period, Savarkar had not merely filed mercy petitions, but had also offered total cooperation with the prison administration.
All the revolutionaries in Andaman Cellular Jail were being forced to undergo unprecedented pain. As a result, at least two or three prison inmates died by suicide. Sometimes, when their ordeals would become unbearable, the prisoners would retaliate either by stopping work or vowing to fast till death.
Once news of these jail atrocities reached India, Surendranath Banerjee raised the issue in the lower house of the Bengal Assembly. The British government responded by saying: “Everything is fine in the Andaman prison except that a few extremist prison inmates are indulging in some extravagant acts to spoil the peaceful atmosphere”.
Two important inmates did not participate in this jail strike: Savarkar and Barindra Ghosh, who had also filed a mercy petition. Savarkar, however, had received benefits for his cooperation with the prison administration. He had first been appointed a clerk in the prison and later had been transferred to its oil depot. In fact, at a later date, Savarkar had even been promoted to work as a supervisor within the jail administration. All these facts were revealed in a book titled, Swatantryaveer Sawarkar: Ek Rahasya by D.N. Gokhale.
Those who condemn Savarkar for his cordial behaviour towards the jail administration and the mercy petitions he filed must take into consideration yet another important aspect of the story: Why didn’t the British release Savarkar in spite of his multiple attempts to seek pardon?
A note sent by the then chief jailor of the Andaman prison, Reginald Craddock, sheds some light on this:
“It is practically impossible to grant any kind of liberty to Savarkar. We must never forget how pivotal the status of Savarkar is among the young generation of revolutionaries, spread across Europe and India. Savarkar is not merely a revolutionary freedom fighter, but he is truly the supreme organiser, topmost leader and a significant source of indomitable inspiration for all the revolutionaries spread throughout every nook and corner of the world. Several groups of mercenary revolutionaries must be conspiring hard, even today for the successful release of Savarkar. They will succeed in their long-standing mission to achieve this terrible feat by indulging in a daredevil raid if Savarkar is sought to be transferred from this jail to any other prison. His associates will definitely hire a boat to arrange for a daring escapade, somewhere in the middle of his oceanic journey or from any other island in the vicinity”.
This is the background to Savarkar’s mercy petitions. One might plausibly argue that asking for mercy was a well thought out strategy to get out of prison by resorting to any means possible – rather than wasting his life undergoing all the agony and pain inside jail – so that a full-scale war causing a complete defeat of the enemy could be accomplished after securing his release from prison.
One may well debate whether thinking along these lines is moral or immoral but there is no reason for those who do not endorse this approach to engage in the gross character assassination of Savarkar. Instead, the focus should be on the question of what Savarkar did after he was released from prison.
The question is relevant because there are some who argue that it was Gandhi who made Partition possible and that Savarkar would have avoided that catastrophe had he led the national movement. So what does the historical record show?
Understanding a ‘United India’
Howsoever painful it may be, it is a historical truth that the unity of the Indian sub-continent was actually preserved by the British using their administrative skills and military strength.
Before the arrival of the British, there was rarely ever a single dynasty ruling this whole mass of land dubbed ‘India’. And the few instances of a single ruling dynasty did not last long either. In short, neither was there any concept of a united nation prevailing in the subcontinent nor was there any such notion in the minds of the people living here. There were only tiny princely states in constant conflict with each other, constantly altering their own borders.
For example, a fierce war took place between the forces of Queen Tarabai and Prince Shahu-Maharaj near Khed on October 13, 1707 and they signed an accord on April 13, 1731 to clearly define the borders of their respective princely states. This tells us there was no single united nation prevailing in the minds of the citizens of this land, nor did any such concept ever exist here. However, these citizens were connected with each other on an emotional and intimate level, thanks to their sentimental commitment to preserve their castes, creeds and religion at any cost.
Of course, there was no rule of law or justice; even if there were any such doctrines, they were only based on traditions or religious scriptures, understood only by a few and often misconstrued.
A section of people has been active in our society for over a hundred years now which does not endorse the above analysis. This segment claims that this is a false version of our history, fabricated by the British rulers and that there was a well-organised and united state ruling this subcontinent. This state, they believe, was governed by its own religious constitution, defined in tangible form for several centuries and which had reached the pinnacle of its glory, such that this land had come to be known as a ‘land of gold’, administered by Ram-Rajya; an ideal state under the auspices of Lord Rama himself.
This section also goes so far as to believe that the feats accomplished by this ideal state in the domain of science and technology were far beyond what the human race achieved during the 19th and 20th centuries. This section is ardently committed to re-establishing that single Hindu Rashtra – the united Hindu nation – by undertaking the greatest sacrifices and by paying whatever cost such an effort may demand. This section therefore claims that anyone who feels that what they prescribe or endeavour to achieve is a wrong form of a united Indian nation are either blind followers of the British, or are pseudo secularists, worthy of contempt.
But while preaching this theory, this section tends to forget one thing; the same Vivekananda whom they look upon as a supremely magnificent and revered personality of Hindu philosophy also prescribed the same version of history as narrated by me.
Vivekananda said, ‘The destitute and downtrodden section of people in this society was consistently crushed and exploited to a heinous extent during the rules of all those who governed this country, irrespective of whether such rulers belonged to the Hindu, Muslim or Christian faiths. But thanks to the British rule in this country today, a single united nation comprising a variety of human races is being evolved. There exists a wide variety of human beings spread throughout India, just like there is a wide variety of human beings found in Europe. Sometimes I feel that a spirit of a united identity and social equality will foster in India only after adopting a democratic system of governance in this country. I firmly believe that the exclusive powers, concentrated in the hands of a few upper castes, will cease to exist and the right to prescribe laws, vested in the hands of religion, will be quashed eventually.”
Gandhi had painstakingly built a nation-wide organisation of activists who were committed to fostering the spirit of serving the people, irrespective of their religion, caste, creed or language. This organisation firmly abided by the principles and values of democracy and non-violence too. It was Gandhi who had developed a strong sense of confidence in the minds of the British rulers, President Roosevelt as well as the American people about this nation-wide movement’s capability to safely govern the subcontinent in a peaceful manner, if India were to gain independence.
But even then, we need to give a thought to questions such as: was this nation-wide movement indeed capable of winning freedom and independence from the British? Did the famous struggle of independence, which truly took off in 1942, bear any practical influence over our winning independence?
Partition and independence
In 1930, the British government sent intelligence agents to travel to every nook of the Indian subcontinent and submit a report about the extent of discontent among the people towards British rule. Their report stated, in explicit terms, “A few negligible revolutionary incidents may occur due to the agitations launched by Gandhi, but nothing more fierce will happen in this country.”
By the end of the decade, and especially after the Second World War, this dismissive assessment made way for the realisation that the inevitability of Indian independence could not be delayed much further. What was needed, therefore, was to choreograph an exit that would serve Britain’s strategic interests.
If one wants to understand what really happened in the run up to 1947, one would have to read The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. This authoritative book exposes hundreds of secret stories which have now been made freely accessible and out of the protection of the Official Secrets Act.
The British made the declaration of India’s partition on June 3, 1947. One week later, an annual gathering of England’s Labour Party took place. There, the British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin said “that the division of India ‘would help to consolidate Britain in the Middle East’.” Britain believed Pakistan was more likely to grant it the military bases it needed than India.
However, the British faced a major challenge in implementing the partition of India: How to convince Muslim leaders that the partition of India was necessary.
Sikandar Hayat Khan and Fazal Ul Haq, the then chief ministers of the Punjab and Bengal provinces respectively, were resolutely against Partition. They knew that partition was never in the interest of India’s Muslims because their strength in a united India was around 25-30% and they would thus have considerable influence in the lower house of Indian’s parliament. Moreover, their strength in the armed forces, too, was substantial, at 35%. Besides, they would have continued to wield power, at least in those provinces where they were in the majority.
Worst of all, historical places of heritage in which the Muslim psyche was deeply involved such as the Red Fort in Delhi, the Agra Fort, the Taj Mahal, the Imambada, the Nizamuddin Dargah, Fatehpur Sikri and Ajmer Sharif, were not going to be a part of Pakistan. So, it is essential to learn how the British successfully sold Jinnah the idea of Partition and thereby fooled the Muslims. This needs to be read from the original ethos of this plot, designed by the British, and is a story for another day. But, even then, one may well ask why the Congress didn’t oppose Partition.
When it became clear that the British were determined to quit India, several princely states had actively demanded that they be made independent nations. A group of rajas belonging to what is now Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh was vehemently making this demand. Their popularity within their own states was considerable. They were constantly demanding that a plebiscite be conducted in their states before arriving at any decision.
Besides, the demand for independent Sikh and ‘Dravidian’ states were potentially lethal ticking time bombs. Moreover, the Bengali leaders Huseyn Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose, too, had begun to raise the demand for a separate united Bangla state. Even if the Congress was to have resolutely opposed Partition on religious lines, the British were capable of adopting several reasonable options to ‘balkanise’ the subcontinent.
Gandhi was steadfast in his vision of a united India. All of us are well aware of his famous historic statement: “First chop my body into two halves before making a partition of this nation.” Therefore, the harsh reality of the time was that even if the Congress was to have opposed Partition, the British were in a position to easily grant India independence by making multiple partitions before quitting it.
Savarkar’s role in the Partition
What was Savarkar doing while this transfer of power was taking place? All the restrictions imposed upon him were lifted in 1937. But between the period he entered Andaman jail in 1910 and left Ratnagiri district in 1937, Savarkar had undergone a sharp change as far as his political views were concerned.
He had once appreciated the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, showering him with poetic lyrics for his courage in fighting against the British in his authoritative and encyclopaedic book, Freedom Struggle of 1857 (1857che Swatantrya Samar). In this book, he had even emphatically claimed that Indians must preserve the spirit of unity between Hindus and Muslims.
However, in 1923 he ended up writing another book, Hindutva, during his days at Ratnagiri jail in which he indirectly suggested that the main enemy of India was not the British but Indian Muslims.
The turn in Savarkar’s thinking was not to everyone’s liking. During a visit to Poona in 1937, Vikram Sampat writes, a group of students at the Hindmata Mandir strongly disagreed with his views. “They wanted the old ‘Revolutionary Savarkar’ and not the one who harped on Hindu Sangathan.” But the new Savarkar was undeterred.
In December 1937, Savarkar told the annual session of the Hindu Mahasabha at Ahmadabad, “We must not commit the mistake of assuming that India has become a single united nation. We must accept that there are the two states of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ in this huge subcontinent.” This feeling of animosity toward Muslims, deep rooted in his mind, went on increasing thereafter.
Savarkar started making speeches with shocking statements such as: “…that Shivaji accorded as much respect to the daughter-in-law of Kalyan city’s governor by peacefully returning her to the custody of her family is neither an example of idealism, nor worth following. Instead of returning her to her husband and thereby allowing him to increase his own breeding, Shivaji should have snatched her custody and donated her to one of his soldiers to accomplish the growth of our Hindu breeding.”
After that, he launched a tirade against Gandhi with the hope that the British would appreciate his efforts at maligning Gandhi’s image. He further extended his mud-slinging by writing a book called Confused Gandhi (in Marathi, the defamatory book is called Gandhi Gondhal) in which he wrote things like, “…confusion wreaked by Gandhi”, called Gandhi “…not a Mahatma but a sensually starved soul” and a ‘…traitor of the Hindu Rashtra” and so on.
So be it! The British colonial rulers accorded freedom to this country only after conducting its partition. So negligible was the political clout of Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that while the British carried out the partition, they did not even bother to seek their opinion.
But even then, one question remains: If Savarkar opted to accept and practice Satyagraha as a method of expressing discontent and political unrest using peaceful means – which he had done while launching his own Bhaganagar Unarmed Movement – why didn’t he launch a similar nation-wide agitation to oppose the partition of India? Similarly, if the RSS had launched a Satyagraha when a nation-wide ban had been imposed on the Sangh, then why did it not launch a similar Satyagraha to vehemently oppose Partition? Did the RSS feel that its own existence was more significant than the partition of its motherland?
But there was more. When Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel were leaving no stone unturned in dissolving scores of princely states to shape a united India, Savarkar was offering his wholehearted support to kings and princes aspiring to remain independent and thereby threatening to balkanise the entire subcontinent.
In 1946-1947, the Travancore king and his dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar were pushing for an independent Travancore state and were even willing to offer the state’s Thorium deposits to the British and Americans in order to win their support. The US did not respond but support for the Travancore king’s secessionism came from Savarkar. The detailed story of this incident can be found in the book Unknown Savarkar (Akathit Savarkar in Marathi) by Madan Patil. Vikram Sampat, who has otherwise written a sympathetic biography of Savarkar, has this to say:
“Here, Savarkar’s ill-advised support to the dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, who was planning to declare autonomy and independence of the Hindu princely state was unfortunate and detrimental to the integration process of the new Indian Union.”
Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS were also making life difficult for a united India at the northern end of the country, in Jammu and Kashmir.
Balraj Madhok was one of the most significant individual leaders from the ideological fraternity of the All Jammu and Kashmir Rajya Hindu Sabha, followed by the RSS and thereafter, the Jana Sangh. He once mentioned, in explicit terms, “We always wanted Kashmir to exist as an independent Hindu Rashtra i.e. an independent and sovereign Hindu nation.”
Both, Savarkar and RSS leader Golwalkar had also been the royal guests of Kashmir’s Maharaja Hari Singh. Right since February, 1947, the central working committee of the Jammu and Kashmir Hindu Sabha had declared that Kashmir should be made an independent sovereign Hindu Rashtra instead of dissolving the princely state of Kashmir. Instead of hoisting the Indian tricolour on August 15, 1947, the Sabha had hoisted the flag of Maharaja Hari Singh in Kashmir.
Writing about the tumult in the run up to Partition, Balraj Puri writes:
“The maharaja was in no mood to join the Indian dominion even when partition became inevitable. He was supported by loyal Hindu leaders in Jammu who vociferously argued that a Hindu State, as Jammu and Kashmir claimed to be, should not merge its identity with a secular India. The working committee of the All Jammu and Kashmir Rajya Hindu Sabha (the earliest incarnation of the present Bharatiya Janata Party in the state) formally adopted a resolution in May 1947 reiterating its faith in the Maharaja and extended its ‘support to whatever he was doing or might do on the issue of accession…
“All those who raised pro-India voices, including me, were condemned by Hindu chauvinists as anti-Hindu and traitors…”
As the untenability of an independent ‘Hindu’ Kashmir under the king became more apparent, the Hindu Sabha changed its position slightly. To quote Puri:
“The Hindu Sabha, in a bid to reconcile its loyalty to the maharaja with the groundswell of pro-India opinion amongst Hindus modified its stand on the question of accession. Pandit Prem Nath Dogra, who later became the president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, moved what was called a compromise resolution in the party (between pro-RSS and non-RSS factions, of which the latter led by G.D. Mengi was pro-India), on the eve of Indian independence. It was left to the maharaja to ‘decide the issue of accession to India at an appropriate time”
The advice of the Hindu Sabhaites to Maharaja Singh was to employ an independent army of soldiers from Nepal to lay down the foundations of a Hindu Rashtra. Thanks to this idiotic overconfidence and vanity injected in his blood, the king ended up signing the instrument of accession to India only after half of the princely state of Jammu Kashmir had been captured by the Pathan mercenaries hired by Pakistan. This resulted in the deadlock that Kashmir in is today. It is unfortunate that historians have not bothered to inspect these facts, buried below the dust gathered on the pages of history.
It would thus be grossly incorrect to assess the merits of the heroes of India’s freedom struggle purely on the basis of who was for partition and who left no stone unturned to thwart it. There is ample tangible evidence available in recorded history to prove this beyond any reasonable doubt. However, if one is to come to far-fetched conclusions about these towering heroes then even the gods of history will be left utterly dumbfounded and stunned.
Dattaprasad Dabholkar is a retired scientist