(Historian Vikram Sampath has caught attention with his two volumes of biography on Veer Savarkar and here he is in discussion with Shekhar Gupta of ThePrint, transcribed by Bhumika Arora and presented in a condensed form.)
Shekhar Gupta: How do you judge these complex and fascinating characters (referring to Veer Savarkar)?
Vikram Sampath: All accounts of history are interim reports and there is nothing absolute about any work of history. But sadly in a world of binaries, everyone wants to box everyone into some corner and put labels on them. It becomes very problematic to judge characters of the past, particularly people like Savarkar. The objective assessment becomes clouded with all the political baggage and the social media noise etc. I think its wrong if a historian gets deviated by it or gets scared or wants to ensure that his work gets the attention. Savarkar has hardly been academically or scholarly analyzed or studied. His work is largely in Marathi which a lot of mainstream historians did not have access. The last biography on him was written in the 1960s—by Dhananjay Keer—when he was still alive. Since then he’s part of election manifestos, political parties, rallies and defamation cases but I am amazed by this singular lack of any kind of academic interest or scholarship. It’s true of historians and political parties—both his opponents and proponents—latter more so to try to understand what the man they eulogise so much stands for.
SG: Savarkar was such a fascinating character but why has it taken so long for a definitive book with so much documentation? Is it because there was a worry about him or he was dismissed as a lightweight?
VS: According to me, there are two reasons. One of course is the political circuit in which he was a persona non grata. More so after his implication in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder
when he was acquitted but legally “one may be exonerated but the moral judgement remains.”
So for the longest time, forget biography, I mean someone like Hridaynath Mangeshkar, you know the Mangeshkar family was so close to Savarkar. Lata ji used to sing most of his songs, considering the very prolific Marathi poet he was. Just for the fact that Hridaynath Mangeshkar who used to work in All India radio, would set Savarkar’s poem to tune and have his sisters recorded, he actually lost his job with the All India Radio. So much for tolerance.
We know where intolerance actually begins where you can’t even tune the poems of a political opponent. So in such a scenario, obviously, the fear of losing one’s livelihood and taint of association, even by long measure, probably kept a lot of people away, even in the political circuit/ discourse to talk openly and freely about this man.
When it comes to academic and historiography, for the longest time, after Independence, there has been just one shade of ideological history that has been allowed to rule. There was no parallel narrative or alternative voice. In a discipline which always, as I said it’s an interim report, so there are multiple versions, there needs to be a lot of dissent, discussion, debate which is the dominant and I name it as Marxist historiography, which ensures that anybody talking or writing or anything different gets cancelled. They lost their livelihoods. Scholars would lose fellowships, they would lose their university jobs. So who would risk their lives talking about this?
So, you rather have darbari historians who write biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru and all of them which is, maybe, we need to revisit characters of the past. But in all of that I again found it very perplexing that Savarkar escaped this evaluation. It says a lot about Indian scholars.
SG: Tipu Sultan is such a polarising character but again he had different shades. So when you’ll be writing about him, Can we expect you to show all of his sides?
VS: Tipu Sultan is made into some kind of mystic saint but he was not! He was a politician so running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, appeasement and brutalizing of the Hindus when it needed to be done was the constant feature of his politics. Of course, it had ideological underpinnings considering the faith aspect which implored him to do all of this but then that couldn’t mean that you whitewash or airbrush the good parts of his regime and administration.
SG: Writing on Shivaji would be another kind of challenge, considering the sensitivity people have regarding this topic, especially in Maharashtra.
VS: I always say it’s such an irony that in a country like ours where we care so little about our heritage crumbling, Tipu Sultan’s armouries are just disintegrating. I don’t know about the Raigarh fort of Shivaji. I am sure, that’s also in a bad shape but anything about them will not be accepted. So an objective biography even about BR Ambedkar today or Shivaji, I don’t know if it can happen without effigies being burnt on streets and people getting into the studio set like they did to Bhansali. History becomes such a live battlefield for a group of people who don’t much care about the past. That is a classical paradox!
SG: Before we come back to Savarkar, another character- Aurangzeb, Do you think that his character has not been treated by either side?
VS: Jadunath Sarkar’s seminal work on Aurangzeb, which sadly is not in circulation, the man actually unearthed all the inscriptions and the farmaans, the autobiography of Aurangzeb, got it translated, learnt Persian for the first time, but contemporary and particularly Western historians, in a very condescending way trying to come in and teach us our history and tell us that Aurangzeb was a very peace loving individual and there were less temples that he destroyed than protected and thing like this, then obviously there would be backlash from the other side.
As a historian, I prefer adherence strictly to records which speak for themselves, records never lie. When you have court historians Auragzeb or these rulers, who were actually taking pride in the fact that the faith of infidels was being crushed and that was a royal dictate. The Ulemas would ask the ruler if the faith of Kafir had to be subsumed. I think India is the only place in the world where we have not come to terms with these wounds of the past. Over the world, you have a Holocaust museum, where people go and relive these experiences of the past and history offers that space where you can heal the wounds and move on but in our country, this miasma of national unity getting threaten, we try to whitewash these faults, don’t state facts as they are and the more we try to push it under the carpet, it is not going to go away. At some point, it will show up.
The whole Nehruvian idea of wishing away the evil things of the past to make amends with the future. A young Muslim boy or girl today is not responsible for the albatross of Ghajini or Aurangzeb. On the contrary, whitewashing these excesses just to make yourself into this community is not required. Tell the truths as it is, heal and move on. This is the biggest lesson history has taught the world.
SG: What is this contradiction- Indira Gandhi issuing stamps, making personal donations to Savarkar Library and then Congress making the issue of just unveiling the portrait of Savarkar in Parliament?
VS: I would say that the manifestation of the wave of Indian politics took a turn in the 1990s because, of course, Ram Janmabhoomi and bringing into first non-Congress and BJP led government. I think in the 1970s the Congress was magnanimous enough to assume that the so-called right-wing parties are there as some fringe elements. So they never saw them as so much of a threat. But I think once Mr. Vajapayee came over and and then for the first time BJP came into power- the things they were doing all of this rattled them. Since then this narrative came around that they are traitors, they are Gandhi murderers. All of this was there even when Indira Gandhi said those words of praise to Savarkar. So is the Congress prime minister and Rahul Gandhi grandmother actually endorsing a murderer?
That clearly shows the contemporary politics trying to infiltrate into the narrative of the past and after 2014 obviously the polarisation was so intense and to get at BJP, they thought the best is to get to Savarkar, the ideological ancestor of BJP. Very few realise that Savarkar and RSS were never one. He has a huge difference with RSS, with Golwalkar, on several issues.
Shekhar Gupta: What is the difference between Savarkar and Golwalkar?
VS: while they were linked to saffron brotherhood but I think the difference largely came from the fact that Hindu Mahasabha had played a role in ensuring the RSS’ spread out across the country, The RSS used to use the Delhi head office of Hindu Mahasabha for its drill practices. So Hindu Mahasabha automatically assumed that this is our youth wing but then Golwalkar wanted to chart out a course of their own. They want to stay away from politics. Dr BS Moonje was told by KB Hedgewar that please don’t use this platform to make anti-Congress speeches. After this Moonje was so upset that he started his own youth wing called the Ram Sena. RSS wants to have its own mind and the Hindu Mahasabha in particularly Savarkar Hindutva relied on one individual whether it is character of past like Rama, Krishna or a living person like Savarkar whereas RSS believe in the cause being more than putting all your eggs in one basket of one individual. The movement goes on even if one person falls. This is the main reason why RSS is still there, compared to Hindu Mahasabha. There are so many versions of Hindutva- a Godse version which was more violent and different from what Savarkar preached and Golwalkar thought.
(When Shekhar Gupta mentioned Savarkar as ‘Beef eating rationalist’, Sampath interrupted and corrected his facts)
VS: no, not beef eating. He has not eaten beef himself. He said I don’t believe in cow being worthy of being worshipped, rather it should be protected. If the cows are slaughtered to incite the Hindus. You know, even PM Modi made reference to the mythical king Sohail Dev fighting against the forces of Ghazini. There were cows kept as shields by the opponents and the Hindu side would not shoot their arrows thinking that Gaumata would be hurt. So that is what Savarkar used to say.
We already have 33 crores of gods and goddesses and we don’t need to add more. But Savarkar advocated, Gau Raksha, even Krishna, was called Gopala- someone who protected the cow. So let’s use the animal as its very utilitarian animal. So let’s not worship it and if you want to do that, do that in the presence of your house, don’t bring it in public space. He never advocated that we should all go and eat beef.
SG: Do you think there are two narratives for Savarkar- His association with Hindutva organization and pleads to British— those have completely dwarfed his personality?
VS: I completely agree but there also needs to be so much knowledge. In the whole issue, it was said that he was a stooge, he wrote a mercy petition but it was not a mercy petition. In Hindi we call it a yachika, which is a very normal and legitimate tool provided not exclusively to him but almost all political prisoners. In the Ram Parsad Bismil case, prisoners got petitions written on their behalf. Madan Mohan Malviya, Tilak wrote a petition. So many people who were given a lifetime imprisonment wrote a petition. So rather than rotting in jail and when given the option particularly during the World War. Colonies across the world, as a matter of goodwill, political prisoners were released and the way to release them was everyone giving the petition saying that I have been imprisoned and So I need to go away after a particular. It’s very much like bail that is being sought today so why is that made to be an issue? When it has been allowed in law, you have a lawyer to argue your case. If you have given the agency of petition that does not mean he was a stooge because he was a stooge after his release from Ratnagiri on two condition that he will not be going to participate in politics for next five years and second was that he’ll be confined to only Ratnagiri.
If he was a stooge then he would have been released by the British government by the end because if somebody is on your side, it’s always good to let them free.
Also get him into the government because from 1937 the Congress party was forming government across the country but contrary to that the government record which is taken in the book as well, kept saying that his conduct was something that we don’t trust.
It was an extension of this period of confinement from 1929 to 31, 31 to 33, 33 to 35 and he was finally released in 1937. So 13 years of activity, why would the British do that to someone who is on their side. It itself clearly shows, in those 13 years there were lots of underground linkages that Savarkar and his brother maintained with the revolution movements whether it was Bhagat Singh or Azad or Netaji. All of them were operating underground. This was the reason Britishers was so suspicious of him till the time he was finally released and all this that he got a pension from British because he became their stooge is that the pension business is something that is given to all revolutionaries who had come back from cellular jail. The Bengal revolutionaries got something Rs 100 a month as pension. Savarkar applied for pension in 1924 the actual year of his release but he wasn’t permitted then and when he got it wasn’t Rs 100 but 60 per month because of the lots of cuts imposed by the government of Bombay and that was available only till the time he was released from the debt. Growing family with no source of income and even his degrees were also snatched away- he had a law degree from London, his bachelor’s degree from Pune was also taken away so there was no way of earning. And his writings as a journalist were under surveillance.
And even this was not exclusively for Savarkar. All these things that he got pension and wrote a mercy petition was a narratives which urgently need historic correction.
Shekhar Gupta: His petition mentioned, “I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like…the mighty alone can be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government…” is that correct and what does that mean?
VK: Even including the last line, I remain your obedient servant. So you know this was the format. Even when you are appealing or applying bail to the Supreme Court or something, you can’t be defiant or use a language which is very rude and something similar happened/ During that time you have Morley-Minto and constitutional reforms coming into play and Congress was willingly supported the government in Constitutional reforms. Gandhi himself has written a petition for Savarkar brothers that they are brave men, they fought in revolution, they faced punishment but now they want to join mainstream so why don’t you allow them. So now today when Naxals and terrorists, even in Kashmir you have hard-core terrorists, when join electoral politics we welcome them. We seek clemency for Yakub Menon, Ajmal Kasab and everyone. So similarly, if someone is trying to get into mainstream politics, what is the point of keeping someone in confinement?
Many revolutionaries signed these petitions. Sachindra Nath Sanyal also signed a petition mentioning that he will be very loyal to the British government. Please let me out and one year later, he went and formed HRA and orchestrated the Kakori case. The Britishers also knew that petitions were not even worthy of the paper they were written on. They didn’t take it seriously and that is why Sachindra Nath Sanyal in his book “Mera Bandi Jeevan,” writes I was advised by Savarkar to file the petition. “Hubahu wesa hi petition mene bhi dala that (I gave the exactly same petition) but only I was released and not Savarkar brothers because government thought of them as D category or dangerous criminals and they felt that the revolutionary zeal which has fizzled out in Bombay, would get reignited.
So obviously these petitions need to follow a particular format and with the intention to get out but what you did after getting out was a completely different thing. If you want to quote, then quote his 1917 petition also where he mentioned that “ if mine constitutes an obstacle in the release of all the other political prisoners then delete my name and release them as their release would also give me the same joy” so it also shows that he was acting as a spokesperson for all the other prisoners who were young, and largely illiterate, or didn’t know the law. They used to call him Bada babu. This is very essential thing to know for us rather than pick and choose. Even Mahatma Gandhi had recruited people for the first World War, in this manner he also supported the British government. So I think, context is important rather than picking up selectively.
SG: You have talked about little Savarkar who wanted to make bombs and blow up Mosques, What about that?
VS: IT was not a bomb. So I think 80s-90s Hindu- Muslim conflicts were on the rise and I have quoted the works of none other than Bal Gangadhar Tilak who in his Kesari took a very strident move because the conflicts were on two grounds – Cow Slaughter and the music procession in front of mosque. There would be riots all over Maharashtra and Tilak in Kesari advocated that this is happening because of the appeasement of the British government. I will also celebrate Shivaji Mahotsav, Ganpati Mahotsav with a more flamboyant lot of procession and all of that. So young children like Savarkar and others were imbibing all of these. So the constant thing was we needed to oppose them. This was a playful game where he was the leader of the army and they went and threw stones on a mosque which was not in use, which was deserted for several decades.
I mentioned this because people evolve. He was the same who spoke about Hindu-Muslim unity in London, who did not whitewash the contributions of Bahadur Shah Zafar. He praised him profusely in his book also. The trajectory needed to be mapped how he has been reacting to political discourse.
SG: Who would be similar to Savarkar in terms of their social profile among Christians, Judism or Islam?
VS: I am not too sure particularly in Muslim community Sir Syed Ahmed Khan at least brought English education to Muslims or got the Aligarh Muslim University but lot of social issues like discrimination in the society among themselves and other communities- no too sure if he come there. Very tough to find parallels.