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Who was Veer Savarkar?

By Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
August 23, 2004 14:45 IST
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Vinayak Damodar 'Veer' Savarkar is back in the news, 38 years after he passed into the ages.

The late champion of Hindutva returned to the headlines when Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar recently ordered the removal of a plaque with a message by Savarkar from the historical Cellular Jail on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Aiyar also criticised Savarkar, leading to the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra demanding an apology from the Congress MP.

Who was Veer Savarkar? What was his role in India's freedom movement? Why is he so controversial? We present a primer on the controversial revolutionary.

Who was he?

Savarkar (1883 to 1966) was a revolutionary who spent many years in prison in the Andamans. He propounded the philosophy of Hindutva and was linked to Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, but was not found guilty.

What was his early life like?

He was born on May 28, 1883, in Bhagpur village near Nashik. After his parents died young, his elder brother Ganesh looked after the family.

In 1898, the British hanged the Chapekar brothers in Pune for killing a British officer. This had a deep impact on the teenaged Savarkar, who decided to take up armed struggle against the British.

In 1901, he joined the Ferguson College in Pune and set up the Abhinav Bharat Society, which preached a revolutionary struggle against the British.

He also won a scholarship that took him to Britain to study law in 1906.

Did he not write a book on the First War of Independence?

In Britain, Savarkar organised students and advocated an armed struggle to throw the British out of India. He also wrote his book on the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, which he called India's First War of Independence, a terminology the Indian government accepted after Independence.

Since there was no question of printing the book in Britain, it was printed in Holland and copies of it were smuggled into India.

The book was a huge success, giving Indians a strong sense of pride, providing a fresh perspective on a war that was till then merely seen as the outcome of disgruntled Indian soldiers in the service of the British.

The second edition was published by Indians in the US while Bhagat Singh printed the third edition.

Its translations were a big success: the Punjabi and Urdu translations traveled far and wide while the Tamil translation almost becoming mandatory reading for soldiers of Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army -- a majority of who were Tamilians from Southeast Asia.

When was he arrested?

In Britain, he also created a network of like-minded individuals. Given his anti-British activities, the police soon came looking for him.

He was arrested in London on March 13, 1910 and sent to India to face trial.

Didn't he escape from the ship?

The story that made Savarkar a national hero!

The ship in which he was being taken to India berthed at Marseilles, France, on July 8, 1910.

Savarkar wriggled out of the porthole and swam a great distance in the cold water to reach the shore.

He had earlier told his friends, including Madame Bhikaji Cama, to meet him at Marseilles, but they arrived late and the British recaptured him.

Since Savarkar did not speak French, he was unable to tell the local policeman that he was a refugee. Even though he could not escape, this story resonated across India.

He was tried, and on December 24, 1910, sentenced to 50 years in prison.

On July 4, 1911, he was sent to Port Blair's Cellular Jail.

50 years! That must have been very tough.

It certainly was. Savarkar's supporters always point to his incredibly difficult and degrading days in jail, sentenced to rigorous imprisonment when he was in the prime of life; placed in solitary confinement while other leaders had it much easier and were released whenever their health failed or someone in the family fell ill.

Savarkar enjoyed no such luxury.

How long was he in prison?

In 1920, Vithalbhai Patel -- Vallabhbhai Patel's elder brother -- demanded Savarkar's release, a demand also backed by Gandhi and Nehru.

On May 2, 1921, Savarkar was shifted from the Cellular Jail, first to the Alipore Jail in Bengal and then to Ratnagiri Jail in western Maharashtra.

He was released on January 6, 1924 on the condition that he would not leave Ratnagiri district, which is not very far from Mumbai (then Bombay), till 1937.

Why did the British release him from prison?

Up to this point, most historians regardless of ideology would agree that Savarkar was a committed revolutionary, even if one does not support the notion of an armed struggle.

But from the point of his release from jail, Savarkar becomes a divided figure, either loved or loathed.

Savarkar agreed he would abstain from political activities to facilitate his release.

His supporters say he only made such promises to get out of prison and that he remained committed to throwing the British out of India.

What did he do on getting out of jail?

He became active in the Hindu Mahasabha, founded in 1915, which sought to protect the interests of Hindus.

The Hindu Mahasabha, which differed radically from the Indian National Congress, attracted followers who were either opposed to Gandhi and the Congress, or believed in Hindutva.

It is not clear why Savarkar joined the Mahasabha, though given his dislike for non-violence and his assurance to the British, joining the Congress was out of question.

So he became a champion for Hindutva?

Savarkar, who popularised the term 'First War of Independence', also coined the term Hindutva when he wrote an eponymous book.

The book outlined the features of Hindutva, including its economic, social, and political aspects.

He also wrote another book in English, Hindupadpadshahi, extolling the Maratha rule over India.

He had developed and expounded the notion of one nation, one culture, bound by blood and race. In 1937, he became president of the Hindu Mahasabha, and remained in the post till 1943.

Is it true he did not support the Quit India movement?

The Hindu Mahasabha, under Savarkar's presidency, did not support the Quit India movement launched in August 1942.

Savarkar also asked Hindus to help the British in their war effort against Germany and Japan.

His supporters say this was a tactic to get more Hindus to pick up military training that could have been turned against the British later.

He was not alone. The Communist Party of India and Muslim League also did not support the Quit India movement.

Was Savarkar linked to Gandhi's assassination?

Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte, the two main accused, were known to Savarkar and frequently visited him.

After Gandhi's assassination, mobs stoned Savarkar's home in Bombay, where he had shifted to from Ratnagiri.

Savarkar was arrested, but he alone was set free for lack of evidence.

Savarkar's supporters deny any link to the Mahatma's assassination, insisting that Godse and Apte acted on their own.

What is his legacy?

For his supporters, Savarkar believed in a strong Hindu society and in the Hindutva ideology of one nation, one culture, one people, which meant no special provisions for any minority.

For his opponents, this ideology divides India today by trying to deny the minorities a rightful place in Indian society.

As the bitter political battle over Aiyar's decision reveals, the controversy over Veer Savarkar's legacy is far from concluded.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi