Ordeal by fire: Gandhi Murder and Savarkar – V

By: Shreerang Godbole

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated at 5.17 pm on 30 January 1948. On 31 January, police raided Savarkar’s residence and seized some correspondence. The then office-bearers of the Hindu Mahasabha (HMS) had issued a statement condemning Gandhi’s assassination. Nonetheless, in a separate statement dated 4 February 1948, Savarkar, who was then Vice-President of the HMS condemned the Gandhi murder in no uncertain terms.

On 5 February, the Mumbai Police arrested Savarkar from his residence and lodged him in Arthur Road (now Sane Guruji Marg) Prison. He was charged under the following sections – 302, 34, 100, 120-B and 307 as also sections 4, 5 of the Explosive Substances Act of 1878 and section 19 (F) of the Arms Act. In simple language, he was arrested and charged with murder, conspiracy to murder, illegal possession of arms and explosives or assisting in such illegal possession.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the Mumbai Police were acting with malice. On 11 May 1948, Savarkar was taken by them to the CID office. He was then made to sit in a chair and Godse and other accused were placed by his sides. They were all photographed in a group. In his affidavit dated 18 May 1948 before the Chief Presidency Magistrate, Mumbai, Savarkar rightly expressed the apprehension that this photograph may be possibly used to concoct evidence against him. 

The police subjected Savarkar’s personal bodyguard Appa Kasar to unspeakable torture. They forced him to lie on an ice slab for fifty-six days at a stretch, plucked his finger-nails and thrashed him till he became unconscious. All they wanted was a confession from him that would nail Savarkar! To his eternal credit, Appa Kasar did not wilt. He refused to give the statement that the Nehru Government so desperately wanted.

On 4 May 1948, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India issued a notification constituting a Special Court to inquire into the Mahatma Gandhi Murder Case. Justice Atma Charan, then District and Sessions Judge, Kanpur was appointed as Special Judge. The Court held its sittings in a hall on the upper storey of a building in the Red Fort, Delhi. Savarkar who was then in Mumbai, was brought to Delhi before the commencement of the trial. All the accused, including Savarkar were lodged in the Red Fort in a specially selected area which was declared to be a prison. The charges framed against Savarkar and his written statement are outside the scope of this article. 

(They may be read online http://www.savarkar.org/en/biography/written-statement-savarkar)

On 10 February 1949, Justice Atma Charan pronounced that “Savarkar is found not guilty of the offences as specified in the charge and is acquitted thereunder: he is in custody, and be released forthwith, unless required otherwise.” In supreme contempt of court, the anti-Savarkar brigade doggedly refuses to accept this verdict. Nothing short of Savarkar’s hanging would have satisfied their lust. Clutching at one sentence from the Justice Kapur Commission Report that came much later, they vehemently insist that Savarkar was guilty of the Gandhi Murder.

Impropriety of Justice Kapur

In a public function held in Pune on 12 November 1964, senior journalist and grandson of Lokmanya Tilak, GV Ketkar stated that he and some others had prior information of the Gandhi Murder. After much public outcry, a special Commission of Inquiry was appointed by notification dated 22 March 1965. Gopal Swarup Pathak, MP was appointed to make the Inquiry. On his being appointed a Minister, Justice Jivan Lal Kapur was appointed to conduct the Inquiry on 21 November 1966.

The ‘Report of Commission of Inquiry into Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi’ runs into two parts of 354 and 383 pages respectively. It is also available online. In brief, the terms of reference of the Commission were as follows: (1) Whether any persons, in particular GV Ketkar had prior information of the conspiracy of Godse and others to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi; (2) Whether any of such persons had communicated the said information to any authorities of the Government of Bombay or of the Government of India, in particular to the late Bal Gangadhar Kher, the then Premier of Bombay and (3) If so, what action was taken by the Government of Bombay, in particular by the late Kher and the Government of India on the basis of the said information.  

The Commission published its findings on the basis of the available information and evidence. With regards to the first term of reference, the Commission mentioned the names of individuals who had prior information of the danger to Gandhi’s life (not just in the limited sense of Godse’s act). Savarkar’s name appears nowhere in this list. If as per the Commission itself, Savarkar had no prior information; his name should be automatically taken to be cleared. 

The Justice Kapur Commission was constituted under ‘The Commissions of Inquiry’ Act of 1952. By law, an Inquiry Commission enjoys the status of a Civil Court. An Inquiry Commission is a body that collects evidence; it is NOT a judicial creature competent to pronounce a verdict. It is vested with the powers to summon an individual and cross-examine him under oath, order search or submission of any document, record affidavits and the like.    

An Inquiry Commission is subservient to a Criminal Court. It cannot inquire into a matter settled by a Criminal Court. Once Justice Atma Charan’s Special Court had pronounced Savarkar ‘not guilty’, the Justice Kapur Commission simply had no jurisdiction to pronounce otherwise! If the Nehru Government really believed that Savarkar was guilty, why did it not go in appeal in a higher court against Savarkar’s acquittal? The answer is plain.

Nehru knew that the case against Savarkar was not just flimsy, it was simply concocted. This was conveyed by then Law Minister BR Ambedkar to Savarkar’s counsel LB Bhopatkar in a secret meeting. An account of the meeting was provided by Shankar Ramchandra alias Mamarao Date, editor of the Marathi weekly Kal some 35 years later (Kal weekly, 6 June 1983).

The account has been related by Manohar Malgaonkar in his book ‘The Men who killed Gandhi’ (2008, pp 284-285) as follows: ‘While in Delhi for the trial, Bhopatkar had been put up in the Hindu Mahasabha office. Bhopatkar had found it a little puzzling that while specific charges had been made against all the other accused, there was no specific charge against his client. He was pondering about his defence strategy when one morning he was told that he was wanted on the telephone, so he went up to the room in which the telephone was kept, picked up the receiver and identified himself. His caller was Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who merely said: “Please meet me this evening at the sixth milestone on the Mathura road”, but before Bhopatkar could say anything more, put down the receiver.

That evening, when Bhopatkar had himself driven to the place indicated he found Ambedkar already waiting. He motioned to Bhopatkar to get into his car which he, Ambedkar himself, was driving. A few minutes later, he stopped the car and told Bhopatkar: There is no real charge against your client; quite worthless evidence has been concocted. Several members of the cabinet were strongly against it, but to no avail. Even Sardar Patel could not go against these orders. But, take it from me, there just is no case. You will win.”

The law states that if the reputation of an individual is harmed as a result of inquiry by a Commission, such an individual has to be given opportunity to state his case and place evidence before the Commission. The working of Justice Kapur Commission started after Savarkar had passed away. It passed adverse remarks against Savarkar when he had no opportunity to defend himself.

Clearly, Justice Kapur’s action was illegal, unjust and improper. Kapur does not mention Savarkar’s name among individuals who had prior information of Gandhi’s murder. Then how on earth does he conclude that ‘all these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group…’ (Vol II, 25.105). In dealing with Savarkar, Kapur’s language is inexplicably loose and vague. He reiterates roughly the same point elsewhere (Vol II, 25.97). But here the words ‘Savarkar and his group’ are replaced by ‘Savarkarites’!! Kapur clearly violated judicial ethics and committed the worst form of legal impropriety.  

Supporter and follower

In the legal process, Savarkar was exonerated of all charges related to the Gandhi Murder. Unfortunately for the Savarkar-bashers, this judicial verdict cannot be erased even if they move heaven and earth.

Instead of being satisfied by this small mercy, let us put Savarkar to one more test! Is the murder of a compatriot having difference of political opinion in keeping with Savarkar’s life and thought? Specifically, does Savarkar’s life and thought provide theoretical basis for Godse’s act?

To search for an answer to this question, one needs to distinguish between a ‘supporter’ and a ‘follower’. The distinction is not as simple as it might seem. Always a stickler for exact words, Savarkar once famously said that confusion in words leads to confusion in thought. In tune with Savarkar’s axiom that ‘he who fights is a braveheart, he who works is a worker’ one can say that ‘he who supports is a supporter, he who follows is a follower.’ Every follower of a leader is necessarily his supporter. But is every supporter a follower? The answer is ‘no’.

Shankar Ramchandra alias Mamarao Date worked for several years in the Hindu Mahasabha and went on to become all-India President. He did fundamental work in the purification of Devnagari script, a project close to Savarkar’s heart. Date had done yeoman work in the field of shuddhi or reversion to the Hindu faith of those converted to Christianity and Islam. The daunting task of editing and publishing Savarkar’s huge corpus of literature was accomplished by Date in Savarkar’s lifetime.

However, Date differed with Savarkar in his views on social reform and purification of language. If the question ‘Can Date be called Savarkar’s follower’ is posed to Savarkar’s supporters, chances are that they will invariably reply in the affirmative. However, if someone introduced Date as ‘Savarkar’s follower’ in Date’s presence, he would say, “No, I am only Savarkar’s associate. Follower I am of Tilak.”

Date well knew how difficult it was to call oneself Savarkar’s follower! Those who loosely use and comprehend words fail to draw a line between ‘supporter’ and ‘follower’. Nathuram Godse and his supporters, more often than not, support Savarkar. That qualifies them as Savarkar-supporters. But that is not the point. The point is – can Godse and Godse-supporters be called Savarkar’s followers?

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