The Indian Express, 13 October 2021, tells us that Shri Rajnath Singh, the Indian Defence Minister, has claimed that “A lot of falsehood was spread against Savarkar. It was repeatedly said that he filed multiple mercy petitions before the British government. The truth is he did not file these petitions for his release. Generally a prisoner has right to file a mercy petition. Mahatma Gandhi had asked that you file a mercy petition. It was on Gandhi’s suggestion that he filed a mercy petition. And Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar ji should be released. He had said the way we are running movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.”. He also said that “You can have differences of opinion, but to see him condescendingly is not right. The act of demeaning his national contribution will not be tolerated”. (Note the threat. Setting up Godse temples and hero worshipping him can be tolerated but no criticism of Savarkar!)

What are the facts?

Rajnath Singh’s statement is presumably based on documents pertaining to the year 1920: a letter from ND Savarkar, brother of VD Savarkar and Ganesh Savarkar, to Gandhiji, Gandhiji’s reply, and an article in Young India by Gandhiji.

The facts are somewhat at variance with the claim made by Rajnath Singh.  The first mercy petition was filed nine years earlier by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1911 itself, within six months of his conviction, and numerous other petitions followed in subsequent years, without any evidence or claim of it being at Gandhiji’s suggestion! To quote from one such petition, submitted personally to the Home Member, Sir Reginald Craddock, when he visited the Andamans jail in 1913, for his release, offering to be loyal to the British Government:

“If the Government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the strongest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?”

Further, as testified by GS Khoparde, a Savarkar supporter’s question in the Imperial Legislative Council on March 22, 1920, “Mr Savarkar and his brother had once in 1915 and at another time in 1918 submitted petitions to Government stating that they would, during the continuance of war, serve the Empire by enlisting in the Army, if released, and would, after the passing of the Reforms Bill, try to make the Act a success and would stand by law and order”. In his reply, the Home Member, Sir William Vincent, confirmed that : “Two petitions were received from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – one in 1914 and another in 1917, through the Superintendent, Port Blair. In the former he offered his services to Government during the war in any capacity and prayed that a general amnesty be granted to all political prisoners. The second petition was confined to the latter proposal”.

Thus, it is very clear that Savarkar had submitted numerous petitions between 1911 and 1920, without any advice or prompting from Gandhi,. offering loyalty to the British government, and expressing his willingness to serve them in any capacity.  Therefore the Defence Minister’s statement that Savarkar did not file mercy petitions but did so only on the advice of the Mahatma is not borne out by the actual historical record.

So where does Gandhiji come into the story?  Only in 1920, when N D Savarkar, the younger brother of the two Savarkar brothers who were in jail, wrote to Gandhiji seeking his advice, when he found that the list of prisoners being released under the Royal Proclamation of Clemency by the British did not include the names of the brothers. Gandhiji replied saying it was difficult to give advice but suggested that he might draft a brief petition. In addition, he wrote an article in Young India on 26 May 1920, titled Savarkar Brothers, where he refers to the Royal Proclamation of Clemency and notes that while many other political prisoners had been released under this but the Savarkar brothers were not.

He says “Both the brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reform Act…” (Government of India Act of 1919) “They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.”

It is to be noted that nowhere in Gandhiji’s article is there an appeal for Savarkar’s release, as stated by the Defence minister. “Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar ji should be released.”  Gandhiji questions the government decision not to release them as they appear to pose no danger to “public safety” or “danger to the state”, but does not appeal to the British. Nor does Gandhiji anywhere say in his article, as claimed by the Defence minister, that “the way we are running movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.” On the contrary, Gandhiji is emphasizing that the Savarkar brothers do not want independence, and want to work under the Reform Act.

There is a strange irony in this entire episode. That Mahatma Gandhi is being roped in to establish Savarkar’s nationalist credentials, that too on such flimsy grounds! The attempt is to create a picture in the public mind that Gandhiji and Savarkar had a close relationship, to the extent that the latter took Gandhiji’s advice on such crucial issues as mercy petitions and that Gandhiji appealed for his release. It is a clear attempt to try and normalise Savarkar’s begging for mercy when numerous other nationalists refused to do so and  Gandhiji even demanded the severest punishment for himself.

What  are the facts, which we are expected to forget?

In January 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated, Savarkar was arrested as he was suspected of being the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Sardar Patel, who was overseeing the whole case as the Home Minister, being a fine criminal lawyer, was personally convinced of Savarkar’s guilt, otherwise he would not have agreed to put him up for trial. He told the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in unambiguous terms, ‘It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through’. (Durga Das, Sardar Patel Correspondence, 1945–50, Vol. VI,  p. 56.)

In response to the Hindu Mahasabha’s disclaimer, Patel wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, on 6 May 1948:

“…we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets…. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Prof. Ram Singh and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS, with the additional danger inherent in an organization run in secret on military or semi-military lines.” (Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. VI, p. 66.)

Patel further pointed out to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, ‘The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the state’.  (18 July 1948, Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. 6, p. 323.)

The Chief Minister of Bombay, B.G. Kher, explained  the political situation in Maharashtra to Patel, ‘The atmosphere of hatred against the Congress and Mahatma sought to be created by the Hindu Mahasabha culminated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a few Maharashtrians’. { B.G. Kher to Patel, 26 May 1948, ibid., Vol. VI, pp. 77–78.)

Savarkar was eventually not convicted in the Gandhi Murder Trial due to a technical point of criminal law: for lack of independent evidence to corroborate the testimony of the approver.

However, the Commission of Inquiry set up in 1965 under Justice Jiwan Lal Kapoor, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, got access to a lot of evidence which was not available to the trial judge. Two of Savarkar’s close associates,  A.P. Kasar and G.V. Damle, who had not testified at the trial, spoke up before the Kapur Commision, now that Savarkar was dead, and corroborated the approver’s statements. It is possible that If they had testified at the trial, Savarkar would have been proven guilty. In fact, the Kapur Commission came to a conclusion very similar to that of Sardar Patel: ‘All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group’.( Report of Commission  of Inquiry into Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi, 1970, p.303, para 25.106.)

Immediately after Gandhiji’s assassination, the Government of India, with Sardar Patel as Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, banned the RSS and put some 25,000 of its members in jail.  The Hindu Mahasabha chose to dissolve itself when confronted with a ban. Tainted by its link with Gandhiji’s murder, the Hindu Mahasabha beat a tactical retreat and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, its main leader, founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951. This was to be the main political vehicle of Hindu communal articulation from then onwards, its frontline political party, till it merged into the Janata Party after the Emergency and then was replaced by the BJP.

It is indeed ironic that the political forces who lay claim to being the most ardent nationalists today played no role at all when the actual struggle for India’s freedom was being fought. Savarkar, after his release from prison in 1924, never took part in any anti-British politics. In fact, he was the originator of the theory of Hindutva, which defined authentic Indians as those whose fatherland and holy lands, pitribhumi and punyabhumi , were in India, thereby excluding Muslims and Christians, whose holy lands were outside India, from the fold. The Hindu Mahasabha also became increasingly loyalist in the 1930s and 1940s. Though the loyalist tendency was there earlier, initially some of its leaders participated in Congress-led movements.  But from 1937 onwards, when Savarkar became the President and undisputed leader, they joined the Muslim League in competing for the crumbs thrown from the Imperial table.  The outbreak of the Second World War brought the differences with the nationalist forces out into the open. While the Congress provincial ministries resigned in protest against the British Government’s decision to make India a party to the War without her consent, Hindu Mahasabha leaders offered cooperation to the British, and advocated that Indians participate in the war-effort and join the Army. Savarkar, as President of the Mahasabha, appealed to Hindus ‘to participate in all war-efforts of the British Government’ and not to listen to “some fools” who “condemn” this policy ‘as cooperation with Imperialism’.( Savarkar, Hindu Rashtra Darshan, pp. 203ff.)

In private, Savarkar told the Viceroy in October 1939 that the Hindus and the British should be friends and made an offer that the Hindu Mahasabha would replace the Congress if the Congress ministries resigned from office.( Linlithgow, Viceroy, to Zetland, Secretary of State, 7 October 1939,  Zetland Papers, Volume  18, Reel No. 6.)

In accordance with this pro-British policy, when the Quit India movement was going on in 1942, and the entire nationalist Congress leadership including Gandhiji was in jail, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee  of the Hindu Mahasabha was a minister in the Fazlul Haq Ministry in Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha also formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sind and the NWFP. It is another matter that all this loyalism could not get them electoral success and they suffered a rout in the 1946 elections!

The  RSS too, as an organisation did not participate in any of the major battles for freedom from colonial rule. The RSS was founded in 1925, and apart from the Simon Commission Boycott in 1928, at least two major movements, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930–34 and the Quit India Movement of 1942 were launched by the Congress after that date. In none of these did the RSS play any part. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS did go to jail in his individual capacity in 1930, but he kept the organisation and its members away from the Civil Disobedience movement. The government was very clear that it had nothing to fear from the RSS. A Home Department note on the RSS reported that, ‘At meetings of the Sangh during the Congress disturbances (1942), speakers urged the members to keep aloof from the Congress movement and these instructions were generally observed’.

It is of course legitimate to ask why there was a silence on Savarkar in the RSS and Jan Sangh-BJP camp for over four or five decades after Gandhiji’s murder. Was it because it was politically suicidal to mention Savarkar as he was associated in the public mind with Gandhiji’s  murder, and now that much time had lapsed, it could be assumed that public memory was short and Savarkar could now be resurrected? Also, with the new public emphasis on ‘Hindutva’ as part of the new aggressive phase, it was difficult to ignore the original creator of the concept. Further, for a party claiming to be ‘nationalist,’ it is a little embarrassing not to have any freedom fighters to show. Therefore, in a desperate effort to discover nationalist icons, Savarkar was sought to be cast in that mould.

A nationalist veil is drawn over Savarkar’s communalism by remembering him as Krantiveer, the Andamans revolutionary. That Savarkar shamed the revolutionaries by repeatedly asking for pardon in the Andamans and that he never took part in any nationalist activity after his release as he had promised to the British government, was sought to be forgotten. And in 2003, when the BJP-led NDA government was in power, despite considerable opposition, Savarkar’s portrait was installed in the parliament. One would imagine that even if there is a whiff of suspicion about Savarkar this should not have happened. And now the latest: an effort to legitimize Savarkar by normalizing his embarassing mercy petitions as being sanctioned by the Mahatma! The aim is also to project a close and friendly relationship between the two, and thus hide the fact that they had nothing in common. Savarkar as the ideologue of Hindutva and leader of the Hindu Mahasabha was a consistent and vehement critic of Gandhiji, especially of his non-violence and inclusive attitude towards the Muslims. There could not be a sharper contrast between their formulations of who India belongs to. Savarkar clearly says that “India must be a Hindu land, reserved for the Hindus”. He unambiguously asserts that Hindus should be “masters in our own house, Hindusthan, the land of the Hindus”. (Hindu Rashtra Darshan, pp 92, 63). Gandhiji, on the other hand, in his  famous speech in Bombay in August 1942 where he gave the call for ‘Quit India’, declared unequivocally: “Those Hindus who, like Dr. Moonje and Shri Savarkar, believe in the doctrine of the sword may seek to keep the Mussalmans under Hindu domination. I do not represent that section. I represent the Congress. The Congress does not believe in the domination of any group or any community. It believes in democracy which includes in its orbit Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jews—every one of the communities inhabiting this vast country….Millions of Mussalmans in this country come from Hindu stock. How can their homeland be any other than India?”

One cannot help thinking what a contrast there is between Savarkar and his men, and revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh who prided themselves on never asking for clemency, choosing to suffer all punishment, including death. In fact from the very early days Indian nationalists had evolved the practice of bravely accepting responsibility for committing anti-British acts, face trials, using the trials for further propagation of nationalist goals and then willingly accept imprisonment, exile or even death as punishment.

It is pertinent to note that Savarkar’s habit of petitioning the government for release from internment and making offers of good behaviour did not end with his release from British jails in 1924. Within three weeks of his arrest in connection with Gandhiji’s murder, on 22 February 1948, he made a representation to the Police Commissioner from Arthur Road Prison expressing his ‘willingness to give an undertaking to the Government that … [he would] refrain from taking part in any communal or political public activity for any period the Government may require in case I am released on that condition’. Even the most brilliant advocate would find it difficult to prove that this too was on Gandhiji’s advice, unless of course so strong was the bond between the two that the atheist Savarkar could claim communion with Gandhiji’s spirit!