On February 26, 2003, a portrait was hung up in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament under the auspices of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Bang opposite the centerpiece painting of Mahatma Gandhi is an equally life-sized portrait of his ideological adversary – Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Known as ‘Veer Savarkar’ (meaning ‘brave’) by his supporters, his title reflects the audacity of the painting’s placement.
Savarkar was accused of Gandhi’s assassination. As his earlier convictions demonstrated, ordering assassinations was his forte; from Curzon Wylie in London, 1909, A.T.M. Jackson in Nashik, 1910 and the attempt on Ernest Hotson in 1931. Savarkar never pulled the trigger himself. He had his accomplices carry out the act.
His ‘innocence’ was questioned by leaders such as Sardar Vallabhai Patel and L.K. Advani. Savarkar was at the least, morally complicit. Yet, he is described in the Lok Sabha’s picture gallery as a ‘patriot to the core’. When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 after ten years of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule, he was the first Prime Minister to pay homage to Savarkar’s portrait since Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Symbolism and contrast dominate Savarkar’s legacy as much as politics of hate. Despite claiming to be an atheist himself, he built many of the ideological foundations upon which the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization and its affiliates were built. His statue stands in the martyr’s corner of a jail in the Andaman Islands despite pleading with the British for mercy and not having died a martyr within its infamous dungeons. His views on superstition and worship belie the cow-worship that has returned in full force on the Indian landscape today, where he is revered like never before. His writings justified rape as a political tool and spread hatred against Muslims.
Born into a Marathi Brahmin family in a village near Nashik, Maharasthra, Savarkar grew up influenced by the rise of radical opposition to British rule. It was while on a scholarship to study law at Gray’s Inn in Britain that he was himself radicalized. In Highgate, London, a student hostel named India House was an incubator of many of the most fervent opponents of British rule. Assassins and revolutionaries met, planned and discussed radical literature there.
In 1906, when Gandhi met Savarkar for the first time, he admonished Gandhi as a sissy for refusing a plate of prawns, saying:
Only a fool would attempt to resist the British without being fortified by animal protein.
Where Gandhi saw compliance and non-violent peace force as his weapon against the British, Savarkar thought the pistol could do a better job.
When Curzon Wylie was shot to death in London, 1909, it was Savarkar who handed the revolver over to Madanlal Dhingra, saying “Don’t show me your face if you fail this time.” Dhingra was hanged for the crime, but the British had yet to have any evidence on Savarkar (which emerged only in 1966, courtesy of his biographer).
But the British eye had settled on India House. A year later, Savarkar was arrested on charges of abetment to murder. He was to be shipped back to India, awaiting sentencing. But at a stopover at Marseilles, France, Savarkar dived out of his port window and swam to shore. It was an unfruitful escape as he was recaptured by British soldiers. The problem was that his arrest took place on French soil.
It generated a political storm. France accused Britain of violating its sovereignty and the principle of asylum. The case made its way to the International Court of Justice in the Hague – and newspapers across the world. Disregarding asylum, the judgement was made in Britain’s favour. It was hugely unpopular in France, where the press viewed it as an act of kowtowing to Britain – a historic enemy. The geopolitics were admittedly difficult, as France could not afford to irritate Britain with a rising Germany on its borders. Four days after the Hague ruled in favour of Savarkar’s arrest and delivery to India, the French prime minister, Arinde Briand, resigned on February 24.
Savarkar was sentenced to 50 years in the infamous Cellular Prison in the far-flung Andaman Islands. This island prison was where British authorities could exercise the extent of their abilities against political prisoners. It was a place where prisoners committed suicide at a rate of three a month.
Unable to bear the harsh environment of the Cellular Jail, Savarkar wrote a profuse letter of apology and begged for mercy from the British government. In stark contrast to other freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, who died in jails by the dozens, Savarkar made a tacit bid to keep his life at the cost of staying out of the freedom struggle. He pleaded to be sent to an Indian prison on account of his ‘good behaviour’, promising to ‘serve the Government in any capacity they like’. In his petition, he wrote:
If the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress.
His plea for mercy was accepted and he was released.
In his time in prison, he wrote “Essentials of Hindutva” under the pseudonym “A Mahratta”. It was the ideological culmination of his rewrite of historical narratives. His view on Indian history was that it was a story of Hindu rulers resisting Muslim oppressors. His narrative was one of retribution in the name of the “Hindu Rashtra”. The seeds of this idea were present in “The War of Independence of 1857” which he wrote in 1909 (following which it was promptly banned within the Empire).
But it’s in his “Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History”, which he wrote before his death in 1966, that his views take a sharp communal turn. Written in Marathi, his book based on many dubious historical records justifies rape as a political tool. Quoting the mythological figure Ravana, Savarkar wrote:
What? To abduct and rape the womenfolk of the enemy, do you call it irreligious? It is Parodharmah, the greatest duty!
Pointing his vitriolic towards Muslim women, he called for vengeance:
Let these sultans and their peers take a pledge that in the event of a Hindu victory our molestation and detestable lot shall be avenged on the Muslim women.
In his view, victorious Hindu kings should have propagated the rape of the wives of Muslim subjects from the very first Islamic invasions, so that “…millions of luckless Hindu ladies would have been saved all their indignities, loss of their own religion, rapes, ravages and other unimaginable persecutions.” His politics of communal retribution continue to live on today.
In his essay, ‘Conceptualizing God‘, he asks that we study the universe impartially, to stop treating God as a human idea to be fought over. However, his greatest problem was the inability to view his own narrative in the same impartial light. He was a fierce critic of the British (for the time) and, of Muslim invaders. He picked from history that which suited his narrative of vengeance, just as political opportunists today pick from his life a narrative which suits them.
In the hall of the Indian Parliament, our elected leaders are given a permanent visual reminder of the choice between Gandhi and Savarkar. But for some, under the current climate, Savarkar has become the father of the emerging India – and Gandhi the stepfather. There is little wonder then that Savarkar’s narratives of hate and rape continue to flame passions, pitting one community against the other.
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