Published: 12th September 2019
Savarkar was an atheist, his Hindutva was inclusive: Why you must read Vikram Sampath’s biography of Veer Savarkar
We talk to Vikram Sampath, whose biography of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, tries to throw new light on the life and times of the revolutionary freedom fighter and mitigate common misconceptions about him
The artistic representation of history is a more scientific and serious pursuit than the exact writing of history. For the art of letters goes to the heart of things, whereas the factual report merely collocates details
Author Vikram Sampath has always sworn by these words of Aristotle in all his literary pursuits, including his first book, Splendours of Royal Mysore: The Untold Story of the Wodeyars and the critically acclaimed My Name is Gauhar Jaan! a book on India's first classical musician to record on the gramophone. And according to him, his latest book, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924 is no different.
“Indian history is full of so many wonderful stories, anecdotes, palace intrigues, etc that can make for wonderful reading is presented in a tasteful manner. For so long, we were served bland representations of history. Historical writing has been by and large very boring and pedantic, enough to put people off. But now, there is a new trend of making the narrative more interesting so that the reader’s attention can be captured without compromising on historical accuracy. So, in writing this book, I have decided to incorporate these ideas and throw light on an interesting leader who has been misunderstood for so many reasons throughout the ages,” he says about his 600-page biography on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, which is the first of a two-part series. But he has a disclaimer - “I am not saying that Savarkar has been wronged in any way and this book is not an apology of any kind. It is just an objective characterisation of a historical figure.”
Excerpts from an interview:
What do you think are the gaps in the current literature on Savarkar?
There are only gaps! (laughs) The last full-fledged biography was written way back in the 1970s by Dhananjay Keer. While every few years, renewed biographies of people like Nehru, Gandhi or Patel come out, where we reevaluate their histories and find the missing pieces, Savarkar has escaped this process of ‘relooking from a modern perspective’ somehow. What this book attempts to do is to fill these gaps. A lot of his (Savarkar’s) writing is in Marathi so I feel that people have not really made an effort to look those up or even refer to the original documents related to him that are scattered across different places. For my book, I have sourced all these documents from India and abroad – London, France, Germany and so on. I have even looked at his Marathi writings and writings on him penned by others, and tried to make it palatable for audiences who may not be academically well-versed in history.
What aspects from his life have you covered in the book? Will we get a glimpse of Savarkar, the man, in addition to Savarkar, the freedom fighter?
As this is the first volume, it documents his early life from 1883 (when he was born) to 1924. It covers everything from his life as a young revolutionary who formed the Mitra Mela (later called Abhinav Bharat Society), a revolutionary secret society along with his brother Ganesh Savarkar in Nasik in the early 1900s which espoused the idea of gaining complete freedom from British rule – at a time when this idea was not even in its infancy - to his life in London, where he becomes the central figure in the revolutionary movement to liberate India, who is then sent to the infamous jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where he is incarcerated for 11 long years under extremely inhumane conditions before being let off on a çonditional release’ and confined to the district of Ratnagiri. The latter part of his life (from 1924 to 1966), including his rise as a politician (as the President of the All India Hindu Mahasabha), will be discussed in the second volume. The first volume covers Savarkar the revolutionary, Savarkar the prisoner and Savarkar the man who first popularised the concept of Hindutva in 1923.
And there is an emphasis on hitherto unknown sides to Savarkar?
Also, other unknown facets include the fact that he was a voracious reader who had read almost all the philosophers of the West and even translated all the revolutionary literature of the west to Marathi so that his peers could get inspired. He was also a poet! I found through my research that someone who didn’t mind throwing bombs had a sensitive side to him which is reflected in his poems. Along with this, his personal equation with his family members is also extensively studied - particularly the fact that he was very close to his sister-in-law who passed away when he was in jail, and also struggles of staying away from his wife Yamuna and his children, who faced social ostracisation from society after his arrest. I feel these events give shape to the man Savarkar was and became later.
What kind of revolutionary was Savarkar when compared to the likes of someone like Bhagat Singh?
Did you know that Savarkar was the one who called the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny as the First War of Indian Independence? He created the intellectual corpus for revolution, borrowing heavily from revolutionary movements in other countries like Italy, France, Russia, Ireland, etc. He translated and compiled many works of great revolutionaries while he was in London and sent them back to India. Bhagat Singh was, in fact, inspired by these works and there are accounts which say that anybody who wanted to join his group Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) should have mandatorily read Savarkar’s biography written in 1926 by Chitragupta. There are other accounts which say that the founders of the INA also had copies of this book, and it served as a Bible for them. So this clearly shows that Savarkar was an inspiring figure for revolutionaries, even after he actively left the path of revolution.
What are the common misconceptions about Savarkar?
Most people tend to equate Savarkar’s Hindutva with the RSS ideology. He was not associated with the RSS in any way. Most people also do not know that he was an atheist and a rational thinker. He challenged the orthodoxy of outdated Hindu customs and tried to adopt a modern approach to religion. He has even been lauded by Ambedkar on one occasion - when he undertook a large-scale reform movement, calling for complete dismantling of the caste system, even constructing an open-to-all-castes temple called Patit Pavan Mandir in Ratnagiri. His Hindutva was inclusive and all-accepting. The way proponents of Hindutva are articulating it today might be the reason why the term is feared or difficult to digest. Another main charge against him is that he begged the Britishers to let him go in exchange for staying away from the freedom struggle. I counter this accusation in my book. I argue that a petition was a very normal course of action for a political prisoner. He was a lawyer, so he knew what he could do best to get himself out of jail. Unlike Bhagat Singh, who was given a one-and-done death sentence, he was given 50 years of imprisonment. He just didn’t want to rot in jail and serve no purpose! He just wanted to get out. In 1920, in fact, even Mahatma Gandhi has written a petition on his behalf to the British government, saying that he needs to be freed and that he would join the constitutional reform process. So I don’t understand how this became such a big issue.
Addressing the elephant in the room – will his alleged role in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination be covered in this book?
I will be exploring this in-depth in the second volume of my book. It is the most important part as it is almost like a moral albatross that hangs on Savarkar’s neck till today, despite him having been legally exonerated. What I can tell you now is that though Gandhi and Savarkar had opposing views on almost everything related to politics, I do not believe that ideological differences motivated the latter to actually plot to kill the former.
Recently, after blackening his bust in DU, NSUI justified the act by saying that a ‘mercy petition seeker’ like Savarkar cannot be kept on the same pedestal as Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. What is your take on this?
I believe that the demonisation and vilification of Savarkar that is going on now is a recent phenomenon. When he died in 1966, even Indira Gandhi hailed him as a valourous and great patriot, a classical revolutionary. Four years later, she also got a stamp issued in his honour. At that time, Hindutva as a political force was still nascent as the Jan Sangh had only formed in 1980. And ever since the BJP has been on an upward swing, their opponents feel that the best way to get to them is by vilifying Savarkar, whom they believe to be the BJP’s ideological forefather. Another point is that people are misinformed as I said before, many of the records on Savarkar have not even been accessed properly. In fact I was on one of the debates on TV that followed the DU incident and I tried explaining to the student about how Savarkar inspired both Bhagat Singh and Netaji (as their busts were also placed along with Savarkar’s), but it was evident that the gentleman did not have much knowledge on the topic and was motivated by some politically-motivated rhetoric. It is sad that we use important political and historical figures for achieving mileage in contemporary politics. The BJP may be accused of appropriating his name to their advantage, just like they are doing with Sardar Vallabhai Patel, but many people feel that they are not doing enough for Savarkar.