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.

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.

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.

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,

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.

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