Savarkar's enormous impact on the revolutionary struggle for India's independence has been intentionally hidden while others have been propped up as saviours.
An Indian independence activist and politician, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was instrumental in the rise of the Hindu consciousness to fight against British colonial rule and bolster the Hindu identity. Coming from a Marathi Chitpavan Brahmin Hindu family, Savarkar served as the president of the Hindu Mahasabha and endorsed the idea of India as a Hindu Rashtra.
It is often parroted that his revolutionary spirit was shattered in the black waters of the Andaman where he was sentenced to 50 years in 1911. His elder brother, Ganesh Savarkar, met a similar fate and was imprisoned for life in the Andaman islands for carrying out revolutionary activities against the British.
The Cellular jail of Andaman or Black Waters as it was infamously called was no ordinary jail. Only a handful out of thousands ever returned after completing their sentence. It was a ‘mysterious world of enigmatic pain and torture’ whose demigod was Jailor David Barrie. Even the battle-hardened revolutionaries and once arch conspirators fell like dry autumn leaves and died in obscurity. Continous grappling with the physical torture made the prisoner insane that often ended up in suicide.
One of the revolutionaries, Lala Ramchandra Das, developed insomnia. His shattered nerves gave him a continuous headache, he was left with no alternative other than suicide. But Savarkar timely counselled him not to end his life. Ramchandra survived but not everyone lived. Indu Bhushan Roy, a revolutionary convicted in the Maniktala Bomb, was yoked to the dreaded oil mill. Fatigued with fever and dysentery, he was forced to walk miles while working outside. Indu’s hands were blistered, he couldn’t eat and the pain did not let him sleep a wink. He wanted to see a doctor but was yoked at the oil mill again. Disgusted with his own life, Indu embraced death.1
Another revolutionary Ullaskar Dutt was chained and suspended by them continuously for a week. He started hallucinating, to ascertain that he was not faking his madness, he was administered an electric shock. His cries of ‘amma-amma’ echoed in the entire prison. Overwhelmed by pain, Ullaskar tried to take his life but fortunately, he was saved and sent to a lunatic asylum.
Savarkar’s disparagers expect revolutionaries to be superhumans in such dire situations, perhaps like Gandhi. There was a general saying that no bullet can touch the Mahatma, for he was a Siddha yogi. No prison could confine him. He’d made the British so helpless that Swaraj would be attained within two months. But Savarkar was Human, he was in despair when in the prime of his youth a sentence of fifty years stared at him in the Black Waters. It gave him some sense of content that the oil mill or ‘kolu’ he was yoked to in solitude was an inspiration for the revolutionaries as far as the US or Brazil. Unlike the Mahatma, Savarkar was not God and hence was attacked by Malaria, indigestion and gripping pain that remained unbroken for months. He survived on rice and water, doing hard labour. He even saw death from near and was lured by the idea of suicide.2
Before Savarkar could reach Andaman, the legend of his unsuccessful escape in Marseille had already reached there. While being extradited from London to India for the trial, Savarkar had managed to jump from the ship’s porthole while the ship was docked at Marseille in France. He swam to seek political asylum but unfortunately, he was caught. Authorities did not dare to take any chances. In the Black Waters, he was clubbed in the ‘Dangerous’ category. He was put in solitary confinement. His barrack strategically faced the gallows. The only human in sight was the crying prisoner embracing death.
Cellular jail was a living hell-hole, fatigued and dispirited prisoners turned government spies or approvers to save themselves from the dreaded oil mill (kolu) or earn the slightest favour to ease their hard life. Did Savarkar ever switch sides to ease his pain? If no, then how could he be termed as a ‘coward’ or ‘British-collaborator’?
A compromised Savarkar would have certainly lived a comparatively easier life, but Jail ticket documents show that he was an active participant in the jail strike. Jailor Barrie called him the ‘father of Andaman unrest’. He was occasionally punished to stand handcuffed for a week or in cross fetters for ten days. We need to remember that regular tedious jail work of oil mills or picking oakum etc was not even counted and tickets were not regularly documented.3
Since Savarkar was a trained barrister, what wrong did he do if he used all the legal provisions available to him to alleviate his condition in prison? Did he ever ask for favour at the expense of other prisoners? No, rather he stood by them by disposing of in front of the Jail commission the ill-treatment meted out to the prisoner, knowing well that Barrie would leave no stone unturned to make his life miserable for this.
Savarkar was much hated by Barrie and his lackeys as he was a reverential figure for the prisoners who addressed him as ‘Bada-babu’. Bada-babu mobilised and guided numerous jail strikes, submitted memorandums for better and humane treatment of the prisoners. But he was principally against the suicidal policy of ‘Hunger-strike’. Young Rajput revolutionary Prithvi Singh or Nani Gopal took a hazardous hunger strike and were reduced to bones and skin. Savarkar convinced them that even the Maharana of Mewar had to strategically retreat, what’s the point of dying in a lonely cell. Prithvi Singh in his memoir expressed gratitude towards Savarkar.4
The outside world hardly knew about the reign of terror unleashed within the four walls of Cellular Jail. Censorship was very strict but one of the prisoners, Hotilal Varma miraculously managed to smuggle a long letter with chilling details of Indu Bhushan’s suicide. The letter was published in the newspaper ‘Bangalee’, causing ignominy to the government. The government retaliated by confiscating the press itself. Interestingly enough, the Congress that was very vocal for the release of the ‘war-interns’, who’d be anyway released! But they remained tight-lipped over the future of political prisoners while sitting in spacious-airy pandals. The reason being fear, fear of coming in the bad books of the ‘British’ government. So, who actually was the coward?
Post-independence, hardly anyone remembers Indu Bhushan Roy or Ulskar Dutt or any other revolutionary mentioned above. Only Savarkar is remembered by his followers and detractors alike. But why has the orgy of systematic mudslinging directed against Savarkar appeared so many years after his death? Because Savarkar not only survived the Cellular Jail but lived enough to decode the fanaticism of the Musalmans and pusillanimity of the ‘cult of charkha’.
Denigrating Vinayak as a coward is a mandatory qualification for being custodians of the ‘minority rights’ in India. Journalist Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was one of the earliest Gandhians to lambast Savarkar over his ‘mercy petition’ in 1928. Interestingly enough, Vidyarthi offered an unconditional apology to a local court for being slapped with a harmless contempt-of-court charge which had a jail term of just one or two years.5
Even in adverse conditions, Gandhians criticised Savarakar’s virtues which they greatly lacked themselves. In 1921, called back from the Black Waters(Kālā Pānī), Vinayak was lodged in Ratnagiri Jail where he met Gandhians and their perverted understanding of non-violence. A particular Gandhian considered ‘secrecy’ a sin, so much so that procuring newspaper scrap and reading it secretly inside the jail was an abomination for him. He even warned Vinayak that he’d report the incident to an official.6
The Gandhian here in question used to flatter the cook to pull one extra chapati. One day an alarm was raised and ‘quickly’ he hid the chapati beneath the plate and started eating rice. The alarm was of course false but he was severely admonished by Vinayak, as inmates laughed and questioned the Gandhian of how his extra chapati fit in the principle of truth?
In Yerwada jail, the newcomers- the non-cooperators and the Khilafatists who hadn’t seen even two years of jail ridiculed the seasoned revolutionary of the ‘Lahore Conspiracy’ as sinners. Vinayak took them to task by openly challenging the worth of Charkha in winning Swaraj and how supporting Khilafat was detrimental to Hindus. In a matter of time, the honest young patriots became his supporters.7
Just like the Gandhian twin principles of ‘truth’ and ‘non-violence’ cannot withstand the cornerstone of practicality, Savarkar’s disparagers cannot withstand fair debate. If the notion of cowardice rests on the ‘mercy petition’ then providence was kind upon the revolutionaries like Barindra Ghosh (brother of Sri Aurobindo), Hemchandra Das, Satyendra Nath Bose, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Bhai Parmanand and even Ram Prasad Bismil along with other co-conspirators of Kakori that they luckily skipped the brand of ‘Traitors’, ‘British collaborators’ or ‘Cowards’, as they too wrote ‘mercy petitions’ similar to the Savarkar Brothers to secure their release.8
Logic had never been Gandhi’s forte. He preached absolute adherence to his principles, no matter what the circumstances. As an instance, two freedom fighters who had narrated their life story to Gandhi, successfully evaded arrest till they met him. Gandhi chided them for being ‘cowardly’ and convinced them to ‘uphold the truth’ by surrendering to the Magistrate. Gandhi’s version of truth cost them dear as they were dispatched to the Black Waters in no time. It was now for them to face the horrid Black Waters, not Gandhi, who claimed high moral ground. Vinayak was flabbergasted at the blind acceptance of Gandhi’s doctrine by the two absconding freedom fighters.9
Prior to his stint in Andaman, Savarkar was a votary of Hindu-Muslim amity to defeat the common enemy i.e. the British. Savarkar in his much-celebrated work ‘The Indian War of Independence’, had contested that the 1857 rebellion was an outstanding example of Hindu-Muslim unity. But at the Black Waters, he witnessed Islamic fanaticism first-hand.
Under Jailor Barrie, there were petty officers, jamadars and warders to carry out official chores and maintain ‘discipline’ in the Jail. They were appointed among the prisoners themselves and were dominated by mostly Pathans, Sindhi and Balochi Musalmans. Mirza Khan, a Pathan, was Barrie’s right hand; he was referred to as ‘Chota-Barrie’.
All the political prisoners were Hindus and automatically ‘kafir’. So the Musalmans took special pleasure in terrorising them. Moreover, they mocked Maharashtrian, Punjabi, Tamil Musalmans as ‘half kafir’, in order to match the religiosity of their purer co-religionists to intensify persecution of Kafirs.
Where a Hindu prisoner was not even allowed to wear the sacred thread, Muslims not only kept their beard but also enjoyed regular religious holidays and skipped work on the pretext of reciting the Quran. A Punjabi Brahmin ‘Ram Raksha’ by name did not tolerate the tearing off of his sacred thread. He vowed not to eat food or drink water. They tried to feed him through a tube but ‘Dharma Veer’ did not relent, he died keeping his dharma above all.10
Hindus were segregated and subjected to extreme torture. Once the spirit of the prisoner was broken, they were induced to dine with the Muslims. What else would an exhausted prisoner do to buy some comfort? There he was served ‘Muslim-food’, probably beef. This made him a definite outcast and other Hindu inmates refused to accept him back. Slowly the prisoner would be given a Muslim name and converted to Islam.
Every week or fortnight, one Hindu was seen sitting with the Musalmans. When other Hindu prisoners, even the political ones, were indifferent, Savarkar retaliated by doing ‘Shuddhi’. He made the prisoner take bath, eat tulsi leaves and recite Geeta-shloka. Musalmans were angry with Savarkar. Attempts were made on his life, his food was poisoned but he was saved by the watchfulness of his brother Babarao Savarkar, who too was attacked and suffered heavily.
This conversion racket was rampant in every jail in India. Vinayak took the task of Shuddhi in Ratnagiri Jail too. The Muslims conspired an anti-Hindu riot in the Jail itself but they were given a sound hammering by the ‘united’ Hindus under the leadership of Vinayak.
During World War I, Vinayak witnessed the enthusiasm of the Pathan warders and other Muslims over the prospects of Afghani hordes conquering India and establishing an Islamic state again. But with the defeat of the Turks, they had to swallow a bitter pill. It was during these years that Savarkar transformed from a master strategist revolutionary to a political thinker. He advocated a larger Hindu Sangathan, a pan India coalition of all the Indic faiths i.e. Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Buddhist or Aryas. These thoughts later condensed in the form of “Hindutva”.
For the British, Vinayak was the ‘most dangerous man India has produced’. When his fellow prisoners were allowed to move freely within the jail complex and become warders, he was kept in solitary confinement even after eight years in Andaman. Other political prisoners were freed under the general amnesty in 1919 but it did not apply to the Savarkar brothers. British Officer Reginald Caddrock who met Vinayak in the Jail mentions that Vinayak ‘can’t be said to express any regret and repentance for whatever he did’.11
Perhaps Vinayak was not resourceful enough and God-like, therefore he could not make the best use of his time in jail like prominent freedom fighters, especially Gandhi’s protege who wrote his magnum opus on India History while incarcerated in Ahmednagar Fort in 1942-1945. Vinayak could only mentally compose poems to keep his sanity intact. His poems such as ‘Bedi’ (fetters) or Kamala were published later. In Andaman, political prisoners had no access to books or writing material. If one was caught in possession of any, Barrie punished him using his ingenious ways.
Vinayak got the chance to interact with political prisoners, most of whom were not more than twenty-five years of age. Of course, they were brave and self-sacrificing but they had no sense of history, civilization or polity. In those testing times, Vinayak awakened their desire to study, to add knowledge. Many of them were depressed that their life had gone in vain, Savarkar’s lessons reinforced their will. He used to scribble lessons on the walls for the prisoner, using thorns or sharp pebbles.
After a full day’s toiling work, a small brief interaction brought them respite. Years of labour ultimately bore fruits. The small school that Savarkar started secretly in jail became ‘Nalanda Vihar’, where he was able to collect some 2000 books of varied subjects including the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Herbert Spencer or JS Mills etc. At the end of the decade, the literacy rate among the inmates was eighty per cent. Savarkar continued the movement of education along with shuddhi-sangathan in Ratnagiri Jail too. This was the reason Savarkar was very dear to other inmates.
Babarao Savarkar’s health was failing. Therefore it was in the best interest of the colonial government to not let him die in jail. Babarao was released on a stretcher. Vinayak was released after spending fourteen years in different jails and then confined to the district of Ratnagiri till 1937. Savarkar spent 27 years in confinement. The youngest of the Brothers, Naryanrao had already suffered six months of transportation. The Savarkar family gave an exemplary sacrifice but what did the nation had to offer in return?
Savarkar after his return to active politics started demolishing Gandhi’s doctrines brick by brick. He lambasted him for killing the Kshatriya spirit among the Hindus and draining them of all the vitality. Vinayak stated directly that ‘disarmed-disorganised-disunited’ Hindus can never fight the British or their ‘second-enemy’ the Muslims.
He became the prime target of the Congress Party workers, not only ideologically but physically after being attacked by the Congress Socialist wing. In 1937, 150 congress workers hurled stones at him, his aide was beaten up, and the vehicle carrying Savarkar suffered damage.12
After the assassination of Gandhi, his brother Narayan was grievously assaulted during the anti-brahmin riots of Maharashtra. He never really recovered and died after a paralytic attack in October 1949.13
The Moplah genocide did not deter Gandhi or the Gandhians to pursue ‘Hindu-Muslim’ politics that not only resulted in the oldest surviving civilization losing its vitality and dignity but also its sacred lands. But far from learning any lessons, present-day Gandhians have the same glee in ridiculing Savarkar as a ‘Coward’ that once a Musalman warder used to have while seeing an embarrassed Savarkar cover his modesty in a miniature cloth while bathing.
Interestingly enough, Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was stabbed to death by a Muslim crowd while preaching the Gandhian principle in a riot-hit area. Would it be hard to guess the future of Hindus immersed in Gandhism?
References / Footnotes:
1. Savarkar: Echoes of forgotten past by Vikram Sampath
2. My transportation for life by Vinayak Savarkar
3. Savarkar: Echoes of forgotten past by Vikram Sampath
5. Vaibhav Purandar’s Savarkar: The true story of the Father of Hindutva
6. My transportation for life by Vinayak Savarkar
8. Vaibhav Purandar’s Savarkar: The true story of the Father of Hindutva
9. My transportation for life by Vinayak Savarkar
11. Savarkar: Echoes of forgotten past by Vikram Sampath
12. Vaibhav Purandare’s Savarkar: The true story of the Father of Hindutva