How Rahul’s diatribe against Savarkar puts Gandhi in dock, and accidentally condemns Nehru’s Nabha prison act

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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, currently in the Maharashtra leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, on Wednesday launched a scathing attack on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar for writing “mercy petitions to the British” and also accepting the pension. “I am very clear he helped the British,” Rahul said, as he flashed the content of the “apology letter” allegedly written by Savarkar, in which the latter assured the British “to remain, sir, your most obedient servant”.

Since Savarkar was a self-confessed “obedient servant” of the British, how can he be a patriot? Thus thought Rahul, whose sense of India’s history is often confined to what his script writers tutor him to say. What he doesn’t realise is that this was the common style of official letter writing in India till the 1920s. Even Mahatma Gandhi referred to the British in a similar, reverential tone. His letter to the then Viceroy of India, dated 1 February 1922, ended with the following line: “Your Excellency’s faithful servant and friend, M.K. Gandhi.” Interestingly, Gandhi’s letter to Viceroy Lord Irwin on 2 March 1930, ended with the line: “Your sincere friend, M.K. Gandhi. His letter to Viceroy Lord Mountbatten on 8 May 1947 is even more telling, where he ends by merely saying: “Your sincerely, M.K. Gandhi”.

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Rahul should realise that Savarkar wrote his first “petition for clemency” on 30 August 1911, which was rejected by the British within four days. His seventh petition was sent on 30 March 1920. Savarkar was just following the norm of the era, which was the case with all, including Gandhi and BG Tilak, among many others.

Like ‘a dog being led by chain’

Before moving further into the Savarkar saga, let’s first hear a story. It’s the tale of a son of an illustrious barrister and a political personality; the son, with two of his friends, was on the way to Nabha, Punjab, to participate in a political movement on 19 September 1923. The police intercepted and asked them to leave Nabha immediately. But they refused. The three, arrested under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), were handcuffed like “a dog being led by chain”, as the son would later recall in his autobiography. But as the son was about to enter the jail, he sent off two letters — one to his wife, and the other to his father!

He didn’t ask for help, but the father, being a well-known barrister that he was, understood the gravity of the situation. And he was not wrong either. The handcuffs were taken off only after 20 hours. The cell was “small and damp, with a low ceiling which we could almost touch. At night we slept on the floor, and I would wake up with a start, full of horror, to find that a rat or mouse had just passed over my face”, as the son wrote in his memoirs.

The father sent off two telegrams before boarding a train to Nabha on 23 September. One was to his old friend from Punjab, a provincial minister. The second was to the Viceroy. There are differences among historians about the nature of the two letters, especially the second one, but the fact is that “late in the evening of the 24th”, the stringent Section 188 was suddenly replaced by a softer Section 145 of the IPC.

‘Eminent’ historians cite the autobiography of the son to prove how he was upset with his father for writing the two letters — just the same way he would protest a few years later when he was made the Congress president at the request of his father. The son objected, but became the Congress chief.

The illustrious father who sent a letter to the Viceroy was Motilal Nehru. And the son, Jawaharlal Nehru. Interestingly, on more occasions than one, Jawaharlal Nehru would be released from the jail before his sentence would get over, thanks to his “good conduct”. Or, is it that he had good connections and was not seen as a threat to the Empire?

Cellular Jail: Hell on Earth

Given the Left-‘liberal’ tendency to demonise inconvenient historians and thus question the credibility of their work, this article deliberately avoids quoting Vikram Sampath and his two-volume magisterial biography on Savarkar. It bases its primary arguments on Vaibhav Purandare’s book, Savarkar: The True Story of the Father of Hindutva (Juggernaut Books, 2019). Purandare writes, “To cry ‘cowardice’ and ‘surrender’, to call him (Savarkar) a ‘traitor’, or to say he was ‘begging for mercy from the British while Gandhi was sleeping on the dirt floor of a jail’ is unwarranted and puerile.” Savarkar was tortured in “the most abominable, medieval ways.

He was put into solitary confinement for long stretches of time. He was deprived of food and water and made to do hard labour; he would faint from exhaustion but still wasn’t given reprieve from work. He was chained to a wall, hands extended above his head, for hours at a stretch on consecutive days. During these spells, he was not even allowed to go to the bathroom to relieve himself and had to stand in his own filth chained to the wall”.

The sentence was so torturous that when British politician and activist Josiah Clement Wedgwood exposed the wrongdoings at the Cellular Jail through an article, ‘Hell on Earth’, in the Daily Herald of the UK, it outraged the British conscience and became a sort of scandal. It was shocking to find out gruesome details of the jail, where “the most hardened criminals” were deliberately let loose on others, especially political prisoners. Referring to prisoners from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Wedgwood said: “The border ruffians and murderers from the martial races bully till life is hell”, and “political prisoners are their special prey”.

No wonder, Savarkar’s health deteriorated, more so after 1915. In 1918, he admitted to his brother that his health was “utterly broken”. Chronic dysentery and the resultant weakness “reduced me to a skeleton”, he wrote. “His weight, 110 pounds or just 49 kilos the previous year, had dropped to 98 pounds or 44 kilos.”

Is it right to judge a person undergoing such an extreme, violent form of torture? One wonders what Motilal Nehru would have done had his son found his way to the Cellular Jail! If Nabha was a horror story, then Andamans indeed was a hell on earth.
‘Mercy’ petition, a regular feature

Like Sampath, Purandare too writes that Savarkar’s clemency plea was not an unusual phenomenon in those days and many freedom fighters had repeatedly taken recourse to this mechanism. Instead of rotting in jail and being of no use to the motherland, it made sense for them to come out of the prison. “Savarkar, by the way, was not the only one to submit such mercy petitions. His fellow prisoner and revolutionary Barindra Kumar Ghose, Aurobindo Ghose’s brother, did so, as did Satyendranath Bose and many other celebrated Indian rebels, not merely in the notorious Cellular Jail of Kala Pani but in comparatively milder prisons on the Indian mainland as well. In the late 1920s, for instance, many of the widely revered revolutionaries convicted in the Kakori conspiracy case involving an attack on a train carrying government funds, including the protagonists of the attack Ramprasad Bismil and Sachindranath Sanyal, wrote mercy pleas. Thankfully we do not brand them as traitors. Savarkar certainly does not deserve singling out on this count.”

What Rahul Gandhi and his ilk need to understand is that the vilification of Savarkar is a recent phenomenon (though he was targeted during Gandhi’s assassination, it was political, as then law minister Dr BR Ambdekar would tell Savarkar’s lawyer, and not institutional as is the case in the last two-three decades). Rahul’s own grandmother, Indira Gandhi, called him “a great patriot”.

Around the time Savarkar was released from the Cellular Jail in the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to CR Das, “The Savarkar brothers’ talent should be utilised for public welfare. As it is, India is in danger of losing her two faithful sons, unless she wakes up in time.” He then recalled how he knew “one of the brothers” well. “I had the pleasure of meeting him in London. He is brave. He is clever. He is a patriot. He was frankly a revolutionary. The evil, in its hideous form, of the present system of government, he saw much earlier than I did. He is in the Andamans for having loved India too.”

It’s ironic to see a person who was called “a patriot” by Indira Gandhi and who, for Mahatma Gandhi, was a “brave… revolutionary”, is today vilified by their dynastic successors. One can understand the fakeness of Rahul’s ideology from the fact that he would endlessly invoke Mahatma Gandhi to target his political opponents, but conveniently ignore the latter’s own statements vis-à-vis Savarkar. For all his shortcomings, Savarkar was a patriot. We may or may not agree with him and his political philosophy, but there should not be politics over his role in India’s freedom struggle.

By giving Savarkar his due, Rahul Gandhi would only be doing himself a favour. This would help him appear more generous politically and liberal ideologically, besides being taken seriously in Indian politics. More significantly, he should never forget that for every Cellular Jail, there’s always a Nabha prison in Indian history.

The author is Opinion Editor, Firstpost and News18. He tweets from @Utpal_Kumar1. Views expressed are personal.

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