Written by Vaibhav Purandare. He is a senior editor at The Times of India, and author of Savarkar: The True Story of the Father of Hindutva, published by Juggernaut Books, Aug 2019.
August 17, 2019 marked the 110th anniversary of the hanging of Madan Lal Dhingra, the young Punjabi revolutionary who assassinated Curzon Wyllie in London in 1909. Wyllie was Viceroy Minto’s political aide-de-camp and his killing was an act of political revenge against the brutal and bloody Empire. It was none other than Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who was the brains behind the scenes of this first ever political assassination carried out by Indian revolutionaries on British soil, and it sent shockwaves through the Empire.
Savarkar was undoubtedly an important revolutionary freedom fighter in the early years of the 20th century. Despite this, these days a section of people call him a traitor and a British collaborator. They poke fun at him for later writing mercy petitions to his British jailers and castigate him for not participating in the Quit India movement in 1942. There are several reasons to criticize Savarkar but to point fingers at him on these grounds is unfair and, frankly, stupid.
Kaala Paani: The Guantanamo Bay of the 20th century
As the scourge of the all-powerful Empire, Savarkar was arrested and carted off to the Andamans in 1911 on a stinking ship, where he was made to sit next to a bucket in which other prisoners defecated and urinated. He was incarcerated in the Cellular Jail there for 10 years — in solitary confinement for several stretches of that time.
Kaala Paani, as the notorious prison was called, had no rules except those decided by the brutal jail officials and their lackeys, who were drawn from the prisoners themselves and were often more cruel than their overlords, especially in their treatment of political prisoners. Savarkar was one such prisoner and the officials there made quite an example of him.
He was asked to work an oil press, along with other political convicts. Soon after he started turning the mill with his hands, with ‘the barest piece of loin cloth’ tied around his waist, he felt giddy and robbed of all his strength.
One prisoner described how physical disintegration would be very quick: ‘Within 10 minutes, our breathing became difficult, our tongues got parched. In an hour, all the limbs were almost paralysed.
But no breather could be had. No extra water either. Water poured into two broken coconut shells was the quota no one could exceed, no matter how thirsty. And no breaks were allowed other than the one for food, even if going around in circles non-stop made the prisoners faint and collapse. So bad was his state that Savarkar even contemplated suicide.
Savarkar was tortured in medieval ways in the Andamans
During his time in jail there were periods during which, for ‘insubordination,’ Savarkar was given the punishment of ‘standing fetters.’ He was made to stand against a wall inside his cell and his hands were extended above his head and held in handcuffs tethered to the wall, for eight hours a day. He wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet, so prisoners who received this kind of punishment routinely soiled themselves.
At other times, he was given ‘crossbar fetters.’ A bar fetter was a metal triangle, ‘tied at three points, the ankles and the waist,’ which, once fixed, ensured you couldn’t bend. A crossbar fetter heightened the suffering: it involved ‘an iron bar between the fetters that kept one’s legs wide apart day and night.’
No books were allowed to Savarkar, at least for a few years, and while relatives of other prisoners were allowed to visit them once a year and the convicts were allowed to settle on the island with their kin after they had completed five years behind bars, Savarkar’s family was not allowed to see him until eight years into his prison term — that is, until 1918.
When a ‘royal amnesty’ was issued in 1918–19, permitting many prisoners to leave the dreaded prison, the Savarkar brothers — Vinayak’s older brother Babarao, too, was in the same prison — were told they’d still remain in Cellular Jail. The British considered them too dangerous to be released.
To judge Savarkar for offering up his obedience to the British is illiberal
It was under these circumstances that Savarkar wrote a clutch of six mercy petitions to the government in which he offered up his obedience in return for an end to the excruciating torture and humiliation he was undergoing. To judge him for doing this is illiberal to an extreme — does anyone take testaments given under torture to be the valid representations of a prisoner? It is also hypocritical — I don’t wish the torture Savarkar underwent on anyone but I suspect all of us would crumble under the pain. If we had been in his place we’d have apologized too.
Savarkar was also not the only prisoner who wrote mercy petitions. Many Indian revolutionaries before Savarkar — Satyendranath Bose, for instance, in 1908 — and many after him — those involved in the Kakori Conspiracy case, for example, in the mid-1920s — wrote similar pleas to the Raj asking for release. Neither Savarkar nor any of these other revolutionaries were traitors.
Nehru and Gandhi had it easier than Savarkar in prison
Some people have unfairly asserted that Savarkar was writing mercy petitions ‘while Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were sleeping on the dirt floor in jail’. If only that were the extent of Savarkar’s degradations and humiliation. Thankfully, neither the Mahatma nor Nehru were tortured in jail in anywhere close to the manner in which Savarkar and some others were.
The Congress wanted Savarkar on its side and didn’t judge him for his mercy petitions
After Savarkar was released from Kaala Paani he was held in a jail on the Indian mainland for a while and then was interned in Ratnagiri district till 1937. Upon his complete release from confinement, Savarkar was hailed as an iconic freedom fighter — his mercy petitions were fresh in public memory but they didn’t seem to matter. The Bombay Chronicle, for instance, wrote,
‘Savarkar’s is almost a legendary figure to the modern generation. His career reads almost like a romance … there will not be a true nationalist in India who will not feel happy today’.
Savarkar now had to choose which party he would affiliate with. The Congress, the Socialists, the Democratic Swaraj Party and the Hindu Mahasabha all wanted him on their side. Nehru, C Rajagopalachari and Subhas Bose, among other Congress leaders, sent him congratulatory messages, and Bose said ‘there is no Indian who would not be delighted’ at Savarkar’s release.
If Savarkar was a British collaborator for not supporting Quit India then so was Ambedkar
You can criticize Savarkar for his ideological shift to hardline Hindutva but that cannot nullify his contributions to the cause of India’s liberation from British rule. Nor can his opposition to the 1942 Quit India movement and support for the war effort. If Savarkar is a British collaborator for not participating in Quit India then so are B.R. Ambedkar, the Indian Liberals, the All-India Students’ Conference, and the Communists — all of who opposed it.
It’s a myth that Indians were a monolithic unit during this movement. Many believed that the timing was not right for such an agitation given that the Japanese were dangerously close to India’s borders and others because the settlement and arrangement between India’s various communities in a post-British democratic India had yet to be decided. You can fault them for poor judgement if you’re so inclined, but can you accuse them of being British collaborators? If your answer is ‘yes’ then you’d be calling Ambedkar a British collaborator too.