AN INDIAN HERO: Savarkar

WHILE I WAS WRITING my book about Indian freedom fighters in Edwardian London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, I was aware that Vikram Sampath was preparing to publish a book about one of those freedom fighters, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966). Until I attended the Bangalore Litfest in November 2019, I had no idea that Vaibhav Purandare had also recently published a biography of Savarkar. I have just finished reading this interesting survey of the life of Savarkar, a controversial figure in the history of twentieth century India. What made Savarkar controversial is well elucidated in the very readable book by Purandare.

Savarkar, a father, or maybe THE father, of Hindu Nationalism and the author of an influential book on the concept of ‘Hindutva’, led a vividly colourful life, much of it behind prison bars.

Purandare describes Savarkar’s life as a law student and ‘revolutionary’ in London between 1906 and 1910 in some detail. I must take issue on one fact, namely that the house in London where he carried out much anti-British activity was number 65, not 63, Cromwell Avenue. This is only a minor criticism of an otherwise good book. Whether or not Savarkar was involved in various bombings and assassinations in India and the murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie in London was never proved, yet suspicions that he was led to his arrest in London and subsequent imprisonment in the horrendous Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands.

Mr Purandare details Savarkar’s years of incarceration interestingly at some length. That a barrister trained in London could endure the torments that Savarkar underwent is a measure of his impressive character. The author deals with the prisoner’s appeals for clemency fairly. Many of Savarkar’s critics still accuse him of cowardice, but Purandare makes it clear, over and over again, that many other well known and obscure political prisoners made attempts to gain early release from the living hell that was the Cellular Jail.

After being released from the Cellular Jail, Savarkar, by now an Indian national hero, was confined to the district of Ratnagiri on condition that he did not carry out any political activity. To some extent, he conformed to this condition, but not as much as the British would have preferred.

By the time his period of confinement to Ratnagiri was over, much had changed in India and Europe. The Muslims, who were gradually adopting Jinnah as their leader, were demanding ever more political representation and then political autonomy within or separate from the rest of India. The Indian National Congress was far from free of internal conflict. Other forces including the Hindu Mahasabha, which Savarkar led for some years, all had their own ideas on how India’s future should be. Purandare skilfully guides his readers through this tangled time.

As India approached independence and Savarkar aged and became increasingly unhealthy, his influence on India’s political struggles decreased.

Savarkar was associated with exciting developments both during his student days in both India and then London and also in his old age. Following the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, Savarkar, who was very unhappy with the Partition of India in 1947, was arrested, being charged with conspiracy to kill the Mahatma. Purandare deals fairly and quite objectively with the controversy about Savarkar’s possible involvement in a plot to assassinate Gandhi. In connection with this, he mentions Vallabhai Patel, who suggested that although Savarkar might have been morally culpable, he was not necessarily criminally culpable.

Purandare presents Savarkar as an honourable and brave man but does not hesitate to point out his failings and weaknesses. His biography is a worthwhile and compelling introduction to the life of one of India’s most intriguing freedom fighters.

Now I am looking forward to reading how Vikram Sampath deals with the life of Savarkar in the first volume of his large biography, which deals with Savarkar’s life only up to 1924.

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