The word “eureka”, though wrongly assigned in legend to Archimedes, came from the older Greek term heurisko, a sudden outburst of frenzy in discovering ways of solving problems. Archimedes stepped into a bathtub and figured out how to accurately measure the purity of the golden crown belonging to Hiero of Syracuse. Legend says that he forgot to put on his robe as he rushed to the king shouting “eureka”. Rajnath Singh recently had his eureka moment when he said that Gandhi persuaded Savarkar to file clemency petitions, causing historians to turn in their graves. Here is a simple list of what the minister forgot when the ecstasy of a new discovery besieged his mind.
One: In 1911, when Savarkar wrote his first petition, Gandhi was in South Africa locking horns with General Smuts. In November 1913, Savarkar submitted one more petition. In the same month of that year, Gandhi was jailed for his long satyagraha march in South Africa. During these years, the two barristers had not been exchanging letters to decide on Savarkar’s mercy petition.
Two: The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms leading to the Government of India Act 1919 had promised amnesty to all political prisoners. Gandhi’s piece in Young India, published on May 26, 1920, which mentions the Savarkar brothers, was written to cover all political prisoners. In it, Gandhi was pointing to the failure of the administration to apply amnesty without making exceptions. Gandhi wrote: “Both these brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reforms Act…” Gandhi mentions in the same piece that the Savarkar brothers “state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.”
Three: In one more petition, Savarkar had submitted, “I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period that the Government would indicate.” This was precisely when Gandhi had been exhorting the people of India to make jails their home. In volume 20 of his Collected Works (page 316), immediately following his discussion of why the administration should have released the Savarkar brothers, we find Gandhi saying: “India cannot attain freedom until lakhs upon lakhs have become fearless and are ready to seek imprisonment in their innocence. And if lakhs were not ready, thousands must be actually imprisoned before India attains freedom. Non-cooperation is intended to evoke the truest bravery of the nation. We must be prepared to defy sufferings even unto death if we will be free. He who saves himself shall perish.”
Four: There is generally a tendency among the devotees of Savarkar to not mention his several mercy petitions. Now that Rajnath Singh has owned up that he did, it is necessary to add that since 1857, several hundred “rebels” were sent to the Andamans. The Indian Council of Historical Research has compiled an exhaustive list of those who were sent there and chose to be martyrs. From the old Bombay Presidency alone, there were over 400 young men transported to the Andamans, who were either shot dead or hanged. They came from many castes. Just as there were many Hindus among them, there were also many Muslims and Christians. These are hardly ever described as “veer”, even though they truly deserve to be hailed as such.
Five: In another comparison, placed side by side with Bhagat Singh’s defiance in the face of the gallows, Savarkar’s repeated mercy petitions put a shadow on the persona of his that the RSS has projected. Bhagat Singh said, “We demand to be shot dead instead of to be hanged.” In contrast, Savarkar had pleaded, “If the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress… Moreover, my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be.” In order to appeal to the Christian piety of the colonial administration, he alluded to the Biblical story of the prodigal son, “The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?”
Six: Savarkar was brought back to the mainland in 1921, the very year in which Gandhi was given complete control of the Congress. Just a year earlier, in 1920, B R Ambedkar had launched his newspaper, Mooknayak. Over the next three decades, these three barristers generated three distinct narratives for India. Gandhi proposed gram swaraj, communal harmony and non-violence. Ambedkar proposed equality and justice as the backbone of a modern society and placed them at the heart of the Constitution. Savarkar came up with his ideas of Hindu nationalism. These three narratives have continued to dominate the political discourse since then. The happy and tragic events of the history of India over the last century have sprung up from these. The advocates of Hindu Rashtra have scant regard for the ideals of Ambedkar and Gandhi. Rather, the negation of their ideas is what constitutes the current ideological brand of the Hindu Rashtra. Giving a face-lift to history is its compulsion. If the minister has found a new twist in history, is it in order to accurately assess the loss of purity of the crown at present, and give it a new shine? A centennial archaeology and fabrication of history that flies in the face of all evidence cannot be defended even by a defence minister.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 18, 2021 under the title ‘Gandhi, Savarkar, history’. The author is a cultural activist and writer