By: Shreerang Godbole
On 23 July 1908, Tilak was sentenced to transportation to Mandalay, Burma. This news shocked Indians staying in London. They organized a meeting to condemn this sentence and requested the Moderate leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was in London at that time to chair the meeting. Gokhale not only declined their request but failed to attend the meeting. This enraged some revolutionaries and they mulled the idea of killing him. Savarkar pacified these hotheads. He rebuked them that their very thought was sinful. Savarkar warned that this senseless act, an attack on a compatriot for holding a different viewpoint would be detrimental to the strength and reputation of the revolutionary movement.
On 1 July 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra killed Sir Curzon Wyllie. Niranjan Pal who was Savarkar’s comrade in revolution narrates a significant incident. He writes, “The assassination of Sir Curzon Wyllie reminds me of another great trait in Savarkar’s character, his humanity. An Indian student laughingly described how Lady Curzon Wyllie ran down the staircase and threw herself on the body of her husband. All this was too much for Savarkar. “A wife sobs her heart out for her husband and you laugh at it! I do not trust you, I cannot!” Savarkar had replied in burning indignation.
On 19 February 1915, when Moderate leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale passed away, Savarkar was in the Cellular Jail, Andamans. The jailor Barrie who treated political prisoners and especially Savarkar with an iron hand hurried to Savarkar to break the news. ‘Well Mr Savarkar” said Barrie, “you always want news. Here is something for you. Gokhale is dead!” This news shocked Savarkar and he expressed his sorrow. Surprised, Barrie said, “But he was against you.” To which Savarkar replied, “No, no! I studied in his college. We may have had our differences, but opposition? Never! If only every Hindu becomes a patriot like Gokhale at the least …!” Barrie wrote down Savarkar’s response in his diary with the note, “On the surface, these Mahrattas may seem different and opposed to each other, but in their hearts, they are all one!”
Narayan Sadashiv Bapat alias poet Ulhas spent several years in close proximity to Savarkar when the latter was interned in Ratnagiri (1924-1937). He later became a supporter of MN Roy. Bapat has penned his reminiscences of Savarkar in a Marathi book Smritipushpe (1979).
The following incident narrated by him occurred around 1932 when Bapat was a lad of fifteen. In Bapat’s words: Once I asked Tatya (Savarkar’s nickname), “If someone were to kill Gandhi?” At this, he easily replied, “No, he is our own. He should not be killed.” I said, “But what if someone were to find his political positions to be harmful?” Savarkar replied, “If that happens, he may be interned for some time in some fort.” I have been narrating this incident for several years. I am penning it today. During the Gandhi Murder trial, I had asked the late Bhopatkar and even Tatya to record my witness, my reminiscence. But they felt that the Government was prejudiced and jaundiced. Rather than drawing the logical conclusion, they may conclude that a discussion had happened on Gandhi’s murder. Therefore, I kept quiet. I shall narrate one more thing. His extreme differences with Gandhiji are well known. But in one corner of Tatya’s heart, there was fellow-feeling for Mahatmaji. Many times, he would say, “His cow, shikha, Gita, Ram’s name…finally whatever said and done is Hindu.” Whenever I listened to his conversation, he would never refer to him as ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Gandhiji’ but always ‘Mahatmaji’ (pp 48, 49).
On 12 February 1943, Gandhi started a 21-day fast in Delhi. On 20 February, Savarkar issued a statement saying, “Mahatma Gandhi’s life is not so much his own as it is a national asset… the Nation which Gandhiji wants to serve by his fast even at the risk of his life does itself feel that his precious life at this juncture is of immeasurably greater value than his loss to it.” To all-Party leaders who had assembled in Delhi at the time under the Presidentship of Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Savarkar exhorted, “The time has come that all those who are deeply concerned regarding the serious condition of Gandhiji’s health and desire to leave no stone unturned to save his precious life should realize immediately, whether we like it or not, the only way which is likely to prove more effective than any other in saving Gandhiji’s life is to issue a national appeal.”
On 26 July 1943, Jinnah narrowly escaped a murderous attack by a Khaksar Muslim. The following day, Savarkar issued a statement, “I am extremely pained to learn of the murderous attempt made on the life of Mr. Jinnah and felicitate him on his narrow escape… Such internecine, unprovoked and murderous assaults, even if their motive be political or fanatical, constitute a stain on the public and civic life and must be strongly condemned.”
On 6 May 1944, the Government released Gandhi from Aga Khan Palace, Pune. The following day, Savarkar issued a statement saying, “The whole Nation feels a sense of relief at the news that the Government has released Gandhiji in view of his advanced age and declining health owing due to his recent illness. It was a human act. I wish Gandhiji a speedy recovery.”
It is clear that Savarkar did not approve of Gandhi’s death either by assassination or fasting. In fact, to go further, Savarkar did not approve of attempts to cause nuisance at Gandhi’s public meetings. The incident to this effect has been narrated by none other than Nathuram Godse in his statement (para 36, 37) before Justice Atma Charan (8 November 1948).
In Godse’s words: “Mr Apte (co-accused Narayan Apte who was later hanged with Godse) and I decided to stage a series of demonstrations in Delhi into his (Gandhi’s) meetings and make it impossible for him to hold such prayers… But when Veer Savarkar read the report of this demonstration, instead of appreciating our move, he called me and blamed me privately for such anarchical tactics, even though this demonstration was peaceful. He said, “Just as I condemn the Congressites for breaking up your party meetings and election booths by disorderly conduct, I ought to condemn any such undemocratic conduct on the part of Hindu Sanghtanists also. If Gandhiji preached anti-Hindu teachings in his prayer meetings, you should hold your party meetings and condemn his teachings. Amongst ourselves, all different political parties should conduct their propaganda on strictly constitutional lines.” Later in his statement, Godse spelt how he developed differences with Savarkar over a period of time.
Evidence from Savarkar thought
Savarkar had clarified his position on Gandhi in 1928 during the Bardoli satyagraha. In his words, “In the battle-field of Bardoli, the cause of that great patriot being, as of now, befitting a general and because it is only correct that we should, to the extent possible, fight shoulder to shoulder in a national struggle called by anyone, this time, we intend to speak and act to co-operate and help Mahatmaji. We but oppose when national interest itself is in peril and that too in the context of the national cause. Individually, our motto should be ‘vayam pancadhikam shatam’ (we are one hundred and five – after Yudhishthir’s famous sentence that while five Pandavas and one hundred Kauravas were against each other, all one hundred five were united against an external foe); ours is!” (Collected Works, Marathi, 1963-1965, Vol 4, p 204).
It is easy to assume that Savarkar, revolutionary that he was, was an unexceptional votary of violence, murder and mayhem. Nothing is farther from truth. Even in his revolutionary days, Savarkar disapproved of wanton violence.
In a letter dated 6 July 1920 written to his younger brother Narayanrao from the Cellular Jail, he writes, “But even while combating force with force we heartily abhorred and do yet abhor all violence. For violence is force, aggressively used force that is life killing. I never cherished not even in my dreams any aggressive ambition for personal or national aggrandizement, and so far was I from being a party to violence that I actually kept opposing it tooth and nail whenever I saw it used by powerful combinations against their weaker but righteous rivals. I heartily abhorred violence resorted to in days gone by – by ambitious men and nations not only outside India but even in India herself.”
Savarkar remained steadfast to this view to the end. Speaking at the valedictory function of his secret organization, Abhinav Bharat in 1952, Savarkar said, “The destructive revolutionary spirit that uses provocation, dissatisfaction, unrest, law-breaking, use of arms, secret conspiracy and the like as means to secure freedom for our nation from foreign rule is righteous only for that time-frame… when our foremost aim of securing freedom is met, the final duty of our successful political revolution is to immediately dissolve all such destructive revolutionary tendencies that have been ignited in armed and unarmed resisting people. Because our end now is to safeguard freedom, to do nation-building. Now it is law-abidement, not law-disruption; constructive not destructive tendency that is the rashtradharma.”
Upholder of lofty values
Savarkar forever opposed the assassination or pointless death of his political opponents, irrespective of their country or religion. He respected the right of others to put forth a different viewpoint. Leave alone killing, he could not bear torment being caused to an innocent foreigner. This trait is a consistent feature of his personality at different stages of his life. There is not a single episode in his life that runs contrary to this trait. Sense of justice and magnanimity were the hallmarks of Savarkar’s life and thought. Savarkar was undeniably a staunch nationalist with firm views but above all, he was a great humanist. Courtesy, dignity and probity in public life were values that were dear to him.
To insinuate that he was directly or indirectly involved in Gandhi’s murder is grave injustice to the man and a travesty of truth. But what can one say of his supporters who form and spread the impression that Godse’s act was in tune with Savarkar’s thinking? More than Savarkar’s detractors, it is these self-proclaimed Savarkar-supporters who put a damning blot on his fair name. Is it too much to hope and expect that his thoughtless supporters and motivated detractors will care to read and understand Savarkar in his entirety?