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  • Writer's pictureMeenakshi Sharan

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar: A man convicted for his patriotism

Savarkar, who deserved to be revered today, finds himself viciously vilified, ridiculed and consigned to the dustbin of history

An author, a poet, a thinker and a nationalist philosopher who was committed to Bharat was convicted for his patriotism. Most people know little of the man whose life was a roller-coaster of struggle, sacrifices, sufferings and defiance. The man who deserved to be revered, was viciously vilified, ridiculed and consigned to the dustbin of history.

Born in Bhagur near Nasik on 28 May 1883, Savarkar lost his mother to cholera at the age of 10 and father to plague at 16. In 1899, he established a group called ‘Mitra Mela’ comprising three members with the objective to achieve ‘absolute political independence of India’. Mitra Mela was transformed into ‘Abhinav Bharat’ in 1904 with branches in England, France, Germany, America, Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma.

A staunch opponent of Partition and a promoter of Swadeshi, Savarkar was the first Indian to urge all countrymen to abstain from buying foreign clothes and goods and to make a bonfire of them on Dussehra, October 1905.

With Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s recommendation, Savarkar applied for Shyamji Krishna Varma’s scholarships offered to Indians desiring to study in Europe. Twenty-two years of age, an LLB from Bombay University, Savarkar boarded the ship SS Persia from Bombay to London on 9 June 1906. On-board he spent his time in educating and awakening young Indian students to India’s politics, gradually leading them to join the struggle for freedom, by diverting every topic of discussion into India’s freedom struggle.

There were three main organisations working in India at that time: British Committees of the Indian National Congress; Dadabhai Naoroji’s London Indian Society; and, Shyamji Krishna Varma’s Indian Home Rule Society. The aim of Dadabhai and Shyamji was, ‘self-rule under the British empire’ (self-government/ autonomy or home rule). The Indian National Congress and Dadabhai swore loyalty to the British Crown. None of them supported armed revolution.

This is how they dismissed the revolutionaries:

“How will you achieve independence, you fools, you think you can scare the British with sticks and revolvers? They can blast off the whole country with guns.”

“You will go to the gallows, once you’re flogged, you will lick the boots of the British.”

But, Savarkar wanted to become a barrister and help the Indian society, to get wealthy and influential Indians in London to acquire positions by passing ICS, IMS Bar at Law examinations to help the cause of Independence.

Savarkar proclaimed to the British that Indians wanted Independence and not reforms.

Members of Abhinav Bharat were in touch with the revolutionary forces in Russia, Ireland, Egypt and China with the aim of organising an anti-British United Front for rising in revolt simultaneously against the British Empire.

By writing, printing and posting explosive literature, imparting national education and promoting Swadeshi, purchasing and storing weapons, smuggling pistols into India through books and fake bottom boxes, learning bomb making and opening small bomb making factories, carrying patriotism and politics into Military ranks, and waiting for an opportunity to rise in revolt, they were sowing seeds of an armed revolution.

Hidden in cloth and machinery consignments, revolutionary books of Savarkar were regularly sent to 10-15 centres in Punjab where they were translated in Gurmukhi and Punjabi and distributed among soldiers.

Bombay CID maintained a secret file on Savarkar right till 1947. They sent a detailed report of his political activities to London before he had reached, British authorities hence kept a close vigil on him, secret Police were always present in his public meetings.

Though the CID was widespread and resourceful, revolutionaries of Abhinav Bharat surpassed them in their skills and carried out many successful missions; Khudiram Bose-1908, Madanlal Dhingra-1909, Kanhere-1910, Bhagat Singh-1931 and Udham Singh-1940.

Plan to repeat 1857

‘India Office’ that controlled affairs of India from London, had a library that contained extensive papers relating to the Indian war of Independence 1857. Savarkar managed to get a reader’s pass to India Office library by convincing one Mukherjee, whose English wife managed India House.

Neglecting his law studies, Savarkar researched each and every paper on the 1857 uprising and planned a similar pattern for an uprising in May 1908 on the 50th year of the Indian War of Independence. But the British secret service that had infiltrated Abhinav Bharat, reported of it in their newsletter.

Savarkar’s arrest in London

Following his brother Narayan Rao’s arrest in December, 1909, Savarkar left London for Paris in the beginning of 1910. In spite of suggestions from friends to stay back in Paris, Savarkar left for London to save his comrades from prison tortures and prosecution, he was arrested the moment the train reached Victoria station.

On 13 March 1910, Savarkar was arrested in London under the ‘fugitive offender’s attack 1881’ for waging war against the King, murder of Nasik Collector Jackson and delivering seditious speeches in India and London. He was refused bail and was committed to High Court which decided on 17 June, that Savarkar be sent to India for trial.

Savarkar was being taken to Bombay by ship SS Morea, on 8 July, when the ship anchored off Marseilles France, he jumped from a porthole and swam ashore. The international law was breached, Savarkar was arrested by the British police and brought back to the ship.

On 30 January, 1911, he was sentenced to another transportation for life which meant 50 years of rigorous imprisonment.

Savarkar’s trial in Bombay started under a special Tribunal appointed to try the case without a jury, or a right to appeal in September 1910. He was transferred from Yervada to Dongri Jail for trial.

After 23 days, on 23 December 1910, the special tribunal announced the sentence of the man whose case was sub-judice in the international Court at Hague. On 23 January 1911, a second case for the murder of Nasik’s Collector Jackson was instituted against Savarkar. On 30 January, 1911, he was sentenced to another transportation for life which meant 50 years of rigorous imprisonment.

‘No milk, will give the Bible’

Europe was applauding him as a martyr, Henry Cotton (President 1904, Congress Session, Bombay) hoped that the International Court of Justice would restore him back to France. For one full year, Savarkar made headlines worldwide.

But running down Savarkar as a traitor became a tool to save their skin & prestige for many. An Anglo Indian paper wrote, “The rascal has at last met his fate.”

William Wedderburn and Surendra Nath Banerji of Congress declared they had nothing to do with Savarkar.

In jail, Savarkar was asked to ‘pick oakum’ meaning, cut & untangle coiled rope into pieces, break it, spin it & again make threads of it. The skin of his hands would get cracks & blisters with blood oozing out of them. He was shifted from Yerwada Central Jail to Dongri where the clothes he was stripped of in 1910, were returned to him only on 6 May,1924.

From Dongri prison he was shifted to Byculla and lastly to Thane. He was given dry Jowar roti that he pushed down his throat with water.

When petitioned for milk & some of his books which were taken away from him, “No milk, will give the Bible,” came the reply.

His trunk, clothes & books, his articles, his Bhagwat Gita & spectacles, his property worth 27,000 rupees, his father in law’s property worth 6,725 rupees, even the cooking pots on their chulhas were to be sold by public auction. Savarkar requested and persuaded his Hindu wardens to buy them so that at least some Hindu & their children could use them rather than the foreigners buying them as loot.

Father of unrest in Andamans

Savarkar had submitted an appeal that two sentences of 25 years passed on him be run concurrently. He quoted sections of Penal Code- ‘Life sentence was a period of active work in a man’s life’, which was 14 years in England and 25 years in India, but Savarkar was sentenced to a full period of 50 years of hard labour.

Handcuffs, shackles on his feet, tied to an officer’s hand, Savarkar was put onto a train to Madras. From Madras he was put on the steamer SS Maharaja to Andamans with 50 prisoners and thieves in a cage that could accommodate only 25-30. Their feet touched each other’s heads when they lied down and they all relieved themselves there themselves, were taken on the deck of the ship just for half an hour during the day.

In Port Blair, Baluchi and Pathan prisoners had Muslim wardens but Hindu prisoners had to suffer Muslim wardens and fellow Muslim prisoners. Political prisoners who went on strike were put in shackles, handcuffs, solitary confinement, week long punishments, harnessed to carriages and put on kanji (rice water) and large doses of quinine to weaken their power to resist.

Savarkar was refused the designation of a political prisoner and was kept in solitary cell, block no.7, Silver Jail. For continuously two months he was taken to barrack no.6 from 6 am to10 pm, yoked like an animal to the wheel of a grinding mill to complete 30 pounds of coconut oil/ day, with only 2 cups of water to drink throughout the day, often chained- hands above head for hours, picking oakum for a month followed the oil mill work.

Savarkar hid a pointed nail in the bolt of his door and for a full 14 years of imprisonment, wrote on the walls, learnt them by heart since the walls were painted every year. On Sundays he delivered lectures to inmates. The poem Kamla was written on the walls of the 17th division. In one cell he wrote definitions of political economy.

Savarkar voiced against forced conversions in Andamans

Mr. Barrie, the Andaman jailer is recorded to have said: “Savarkar is father of unrest in Andamans, he’s to be given no quarter and shown no mercy.” “It is sheer cowardice to bear silently vile attacks on one’s national honour,” said Savarkar to his Jailer.

For converting young Hindu prisoners, the Muslim wardens & jamadars thrashed them and lured them with tobacco and sweets. They would then be circumcised and made to dine with Muslim prisoners.

Veer Savarkar logged first complaint of forced conversion in Andamans in 1913 and started a campaign of resistance and shuddhi in jail that went on till he was released in 1922.

As per Silver Jail regulations, prisoners were freed within 6 months to a year with the longest detainment being three years after which, they were free to live outside the prison, make a home & earn livelihood in Andamans. But no such concessions were given to Savarkar even after 5 years of imprisonment.

Support for release of revolutionaries

In May 1914 a plot like the 1857 uprising was planned to start a revolution with the Army rising in mutiny against the Government. At the same time, German submarines were manoeuvring in Andaman waters to attack the islands.

During this period, Savarkar wrote many petitions and pleas, a common practice of those times; to be released along with other prisoners with or without conditions, or be enlisted as a volunteer, clearly stating his objective of freedom of all political prisoners even if he was detained.

“If I was not to be set free on stepping into India, I prefer to be kept in Andamans to serve my whole term of imprisonment, I have finished my 10 years in jail, I should be allowed to settle in the Andamans as a free person or on a ticket to which I was entitled,” petitioned Savarkar.

Savarkar headed four strikes during his imprisonment, the last one ended in 1914 with detention of a few prisoners including him. When the fourth strike was declared, Savarkar sent an open letter to Mr. Montague dated 6 April, 1920, with a freed political prisoner with instructions to get it endorsed with thousands of signatures and to hold meetings to support the release of the revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, Narayan Rao was making copies of Savarkar’s annual letters (only one open letter per year was allowed) and sending them to all leaders, some of whom published them in local papers. Bal Gangadhar Tilak also wrote a letter to Montague for Savarkar’s release.

Around the same time in Andaman jail, Savarkar was briefing the Cardew Committee, about the prosecution of prisoner Bhan Singh and his own experience in the jail. Written statements of five political prisoners including Savarkar were taken.

Savarkar embodied in the petition, the gist of criminal law, the system of prison administration from Borstal system in England to experiments in America on the European continent and included proposals of using prisoners to develop the Andaman settlements with improved engineering, sanitation and turning them into resorts and fortifying the islands into a great Naval Base for the defence of India. Captain Blair (Port Blair derives its name from him) and Engineer Colebrooke in 1766 had tried to turn Andamans into a regular settlement, the first prisoners perished to the last man. 1857 mutineers were also sent here but no one recorded the story of their imprisonment in Andamans before Veer Savarkar.

Soon as the numbers of prisoners sent to Andamans reduced, the British planned to turn the whole region into a personal estate by putting out plots on sale and developing a plantation of coconut and betel-nut. Christian missionaries took full advantage and secured lands, the same was denied to Indian traders and farmers.

Appeal thrown into the dustbin

The National Union of Bombay submitted a petition signed by 70,000 for the release of political prisoners and made a special mention of the Savarkar brothers. Gandhi is known to have thrown the appeal of Savarkar’s release in the dustbin saying that he did not know who Savarkar was, Nehru is believed to have torn the memorandum of his release.

Tilak’s death in August caused the sudden appearance of Gandhi and his Khilafat movement with the Ali brothers in early 1921. “Khilaft would prove to be an aafat” prophesied Savarkar.

The Savarkar brothers were sent to India on 2 May, 1921, by the same steamer SS Maharaja. They were jailed in Ratnagiri and later taken to Yerwada Central Jail. His unconditional release was demanded in a resolution at the third Ratanagiri Political Conference in 1923.

Savarkar carried on Sangathan work

Veer Savarkar was released conditionally from Yerwada Jail on 6 January 1924. Around May 1924, plague broke out in Ratnagiri and Savarkar was allowed to move to Nasik where he carried on work for upliftment of Hindus.

He visited Bhagur with government permission but was compelled to return to Ratnagiri due to the rousing receptions that he received.

On his way back to Ratnagiri, he halted at Bombay in November 1924. Shaukat Ali of Khilafat movement met him and asked him to stop Hindu Sangathan movement to which Savarkar replied that the Sangathan work and reconversions of Hindus will go uninterrupted as long as the Muslims had a separate organisation for themselves and converted the Hindus. His internment period kept getting extended till 4 January, 1937, when he was finally released.

On 1 August 1937 Savarkar joined Democratic Swaraj Party of Tilak and The Hindu Mahasabha afterwards. At the age of 83 on 26 February 1966, Savarkar ended his life journey at 11.10 am.

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