An Indian hero or villain?

VINAYAK DAMODAR SAVARKAR (1883-1966) has been dead for over half a century. Yet, his ideas continue to influence political thinking in India today. A controversial freedom fighter, writer, and politician, he is either admired uncritically by his biographers or damned by them. Vikram Sampath’s recently published book “Savarkar:Echoes from a Forgotten Past 1883-1924″ provides a reasonably balanced story that is neither over critical (as is, for example, AG Noorani) or hagiographic (as are D Keer and J Joglekar).

The period covered in the book by Sampath, 1883 to 1924, is the most important part of his life as far as the present is concerned.

From an early age, Savarkar, who was much influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini, was involved with secret societies and conspiracies, all connected with his desire to rid India of its British imperialist rulers.

In 1906, Savarkar travelled to London to study to become a barrister. He was funded by a scholarship granted by Shyamji Krishnavarma and his wealthy supporters. For most of his stay in London, he resided at India House in Highgate, founded by Krishnavarma (and described in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets).

Savarkar’s years in London (1906-10) were productive in several ways. He wrote a biography of Mazzini and a history of the First Indian War of Independence (1857-58). Both works reflected his aim of expelling the British from India. In addition to writing, he became deeply involved in: what the British authorities might have called ‘terrorism’; bomb making; smuggling ‘seditious’ literature and weaponry into India; assassinations; and so on. This is all described well and interestingly by Sampath.

The British police and their counterparts in India became desperate to put Savarkar behind bars. He left for France in late 1909 and his freedom fighting friends there, including Krishnavarma and Madam Cama, tried to persuade him not to return to England. However, he did and was arrested.

Savarkar was kept in custody in Brixton prison for months whilst a lengthy case for his extradition to face charges in India, was fought. In the end, he lost and began his long journey to India as a political prisoner.

At Marseilles, Savarkar escaped from the ship and was rearrested on French soil by British police, who had been accompanying him. This arrest on foreign, not British, soil gave rise to an international tribunal in the Hague. However, by the time when the legality of this irregular arrest was decided, Savarkar was in prison in Bombay, being tried without a jury. He was condemned to two terms of life imprisonment (50 years) in the Cellular Jail, a hellhole on the almost inhospitable Andaman Islands. Interestingly, it was the terrible years he spent there that were to lead to his development of important ideas about Hindu Nationalism.

Savarkar underwent unbelievably horrendous experiences in the Cellular Jail. Regarded as highly dangerous by the British, he was singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Despite often being so unwell that he was close to dying, Savarkar survived his prison ordeals. As the years passed, he was able to educate his fellow prisoners and to develop his ideas on the shape of a future India free of British domination. It was while in the Andamans that his views on who could be counted as a ‘true Indian’ began to form in earnest.

Many of Savarkar’s detractors brand him as a coward for having written many petitions for clemency to the British authorities. Sampath shows, as does another recent biographer (V Purandare) that Savarkar was far from being alone amongst the political prisoners in trying to cut short his prison sentence. He made promises to abstain from political activity if his sentence was shortened. In addition to wanting to save himself from future torments, Savarkar believed that a politician behind bars was far less use to his country than outside prison. Sampath shows that both he and the British officials believed that his promises of good behaviour were of questionable value.

Sampath’s description of Savarkar’s time in the Andamans is heavily dependent on Savarkar’s own detailed account of it, which was published a few years after his release. I have read parts of this fascinating story (available in English on savarkar.org). However, one should be a little cautious about its accuracy because I felt that although much of what Savarkar described was probably accurate, he wrote it not only as a piece of personal history but also with political intentions, as was the case with his earlier history of the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’. That said, any biographer of Savarkar needs to depend heavily on Savarkar’s own story of his imprisonment.

Eventually, Savarkar was moved from the Andamans to prisons on the Indian mainland, and then later was released but confined to living within one district without being allowed to engage in politics. It was in the period following his release from the Andamans and before 1924, when Sampath ends his biography, that Savarkar wrote and published (using a pseudonym) his highly influential book on Hindutva, the ‘highway code’ or ‘road map’ for Hindu nationalism and Hindu nationalists. The ideas contained within the book, which Sampath discusses with clarity, have had great importance in recent Indian politics.

Even though a lengthy volume, I have enjoyed reading Sampath’s detailed, informative, and exciting account of the first part of the life of Savarkar. It is a well written and engaging book, almost a ‘page turner’.

Most importantly, in this age of uncritical damning of people whose political views do not chime with one’s own, Sampath has written a balanced account of a man who until recently has either been described as being purely a hero or a total villain.

I Read Sampath’s book and discovered a man, Savarkar, who, with all fairness, cannot be easily characterised as either good or evil. Instead, Sampath reveals him as being intriguing and multi-faceted: a man who played a not insignificant role in India’s struggle for independence.

I recommend this book by Sampath to all who take an interest in the current Indian political scene and/or the fascinating story of the India’s difficult road to independence.

Beneath a roof

65 CW blog mini

Beneath this roof

Indian patriots conspir’d

To end an empire 

 

The picture shows the roof of a house in London’s Highgate district where, between 1905 and 1910, Indian patriots (including Shyamji Krishnavarma, VD Savarkar, Madanlal Dhingra, and VVS Aiyar) plotted the downfall of the British Empire in India. You cand discover much meore about this fascinating, but relatively unknown episode in the history of India’s struggle for independence in the book “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” by Adam Yamey.

The book is available here: 

https://www.bookdepository.com/IDEAS-BOMBS-BULLETS-Adam-YAMEY/9780244203870

and at a special low price in India here:

https://pothi.com/pothi/book/adam-yamey-ideas-bombs-and-bullets

and on Kindle

Identity crisis

Don’t worry! This is not really a crisis. I used the word ‘crisis’ in the title to catch your attention! And, now that I have caught your attention, you might as well read on for a fewminutes because what I am about to tell you has a good chance of being interesting for you.

ALDWYCH

Since marrying a lady born in India, I have had many opportunities to visit India House on the western arm of the Aldwych in central London. Built 1928-30 and designed by Herbert Baker (1862-1946) with AT Scott, this stone building is profusely decorated with Ashoka lions and many circular, coloured emblems, which were those of the pre-Independence (and pre-Partition) colonial provinces (e.g. ‘Baluchistan’, ‘United Provinces’, ‘Burma’, ‘Madras’ and ‘North West Frontier’).

ALDWYCH 2

Looking upwards, there are two elaborate crests each topped with heraldic lions and including the mottos: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” and “Dieu et mon droit”. These are ‘souvenirs’ of the era when India was a British colony. Just as in post-Independence India there are still some statues of Queen Victoria standing– there is a fine example in Bangalore, these reminders of British imperialism remain attached to the building.

One side of India House faces India Place, which contains a bust of the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who became a barrister at the nearby Inner Temple. Close to a side entrance of India House, there is a monument to an off-duty policeman Jim Morrison, who was stabbed in December 1991 whilst chasing a handbag thief, who has never been caught. A ‘Friendship Tree’ was planted nearby in 1994 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.

The India House, which now stands in the Aldwych, was NOT the first ‘India House’ in London. It had a predecessor in the north London suburb of Highgate. The earlier India House  stood at 65 Cromwell Avenue was a Victorian house that still exists. The Victorian house was named India House between 1905 and 1910 when it  was owned by Shyamji Krishnavarma who made it a hostel for Indian students and other Indians staying in London. The north London India House had a brief existence because it was under constant police surveillance on account of the anti-imperialist activities that went on within its walls (including producing anti-British propaganda, anti-British meetings, bomb-making, and arms smuggling).

Many Indian patriots, who wanted to force Britain to give its then colony India freedom, lived and congregated in Highgate’s India House. Their activities and often daring deeds are described in my new book about a lesser-known period in the history of India’s independence struggle: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.

 

“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

by Adam Yamey is available from on-line stores including:

Amazon, Bookfinder.com, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and Lulu.com

A house in west London

140 small SINCLAIR

 

Number 140 Sinclair Road in west London, not far from Shepherds Bush Green, looks like an ordinary Victorian terraced house, which it is. However, in the first decade of the twentieth century it was home to a few Indian freedom fighters. When the seventeen year old David Garnett, the writer and a future member of the Bloomsbury Group, visited the house in 1909, he met Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) the Bengali nationalist and a father of the Swadeshi movement, which promoted Indian economic independence. He shared the house with his son Niranjan Pal (1889-1959), a young Indian freedom fighter who was to become a founder of the Bombay Talkies film company. Sukhsagar Dutt (1890-1967), a young Indian revolutionary and brother of Ullaskar Dutt who was involved in the use of bombs in Bengal and Bihar and tried at Alipore (Calcutta), also lived at number 140.

In mid to late 1909, VD (‘Veer’) Savarkar (1883-1966) also lived at 140 Sinclair Road as a lodger of Bipin Chandra Pal. Savarkar, who was studying law at the time, was deeply involved in activities aimed at attempting to cause the British to leave India in order that the country became a sovereign nation. Savarkar is now best known for his contributions to the encouragement of Hindu nationalism. His book “Essentials of Hindutva”, published in 1923, is considered a seminal work by promoters of Hindu nationalism.

Savarkar moved from India House in Highgate, a centre of revolutionary Indian independence activists, to 140 Sinclair Road sometime in 1909 before the assassination in London’s Kensington of a senior Indian administrative figure, Sir WH Curzon Wyllie, in July 1909. The victim was shot at close range by Madan Lal Dhingra, a close associate of Savarkar. Savarkar was suspected of having some involvement in the plotting of Curzon Wyllie’s demise. Savarkar’s host in Sinclair Road, Bipin Chandra Pal, was firmly against what Dhingra had done, but accommodated Savarkar, who was pleased that the assassination had been successful until, as I wrote in my book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”:

“… an angry crowd gathered outside, the house, Pal had to tell them that apart from being a paying guest, Veer had no other association with him. Another resident at this address, Pal’s son Niranjan, was a close friend of Veer’s and a regular visitor to India House. Niranjan’s association with India House worried Bipin greatly…

Soon after this, Savarkar shifted his home in London to a flat above an Indian restaurant in a now non-existent alleyway in Holborn.

From what I have described, the seemingly ordinary terrace house at 140 Sinclair Road has played a small role in the history of India’s struggle for freedom from the British, which was eventually gained in August 1947.

For much more information about Indian patriots in Edwardian London, I invite you to read my recently published book, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”, which focusses on the Indian patriots who congregated at India House in Highgate between 1905 and 1910.

 

A SMALL house cover

 

This publication is available at:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/adam-yamey/ideas-bombs-and-bullets/paperback/product-24198568.html

or:

https://www.bookdepository.com/IDEAS-BOMBS-BULLETS-Adam-YAMEY/9780244203870

(paperback)

and

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07W7CYKPG/

(Kindle)