Savarkar biographer-historian in conversation with Kailashnath Adhikari, MD, Governance Now
GN Bureau | October 18, 2021
Defence minister Rajnath Singh’s statement, that Mahatma Gandhi had asked V.D. Savarkar to file a mercy petition before the British, has ignited a debate. Vikram Sampath, a historian and author of a recent biography of Savarkar, says two weeks after Jawaharlal Nehru was lodged in Nabha jail, his father Motilal Nehru had petitioned to the Viceroy, promising that his son would never enter Nabha again and he (Jawaharlal Nehru) had signed a bond to that effect.
Sampath said Gandhiji himself asked Savarkar to write a petition because it was a common legal tool available to political prisoners and Gandhiji himself being a lawyer knew of this provision of law.
“During the freedom struggle, petitioning was a normal process and petition meant a clemency petition. The construction of the statement by Mr. Rajnath Singh left it open to speculation that all the other petitions were also filed at Gandhiji’s behest which was not the case. From 1911 every time the government gave an opportunity to political prisoners to file a petition …being a lawyer, he (Gandhi) knew that there is an option to file writ petition just like the provision of bail these days. Gandhiji had filed about eight petitions but [regarding] this particular petition, the defence minister missed mentioning the year.”
Sampath was in a conversation with Kailashnath Adhikari, MD, Governance Now, during a webcast as part of the Visionary Talk series organised by the public policy and governance analysis platform.
Watch the video:
The author said that, in the first volume of his book, ‘Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924’ and interviews, he has said that in 1920 during the royal proclamation of Emperor George V to release political prisoners across the world, only the Savarkar brothers, Vinayak and Babarao, were not released by the British. The younger brother, Narayan Rao then approached Mahatma Gandhi, who in a letter dated January, 25, 1920 told Narayan Rao that his brothers should petition again and that he will also write to get the two brothers released.
Later in May 1920, Gandhiji in a detailed article in ‘Young India’, his weekly journal, wrote an article, building a strong case for the release of the two brothers followed by another article in 1921, not only praising the bravery of Savarkar but also how the country could utilise his efforts rather than keeping him in Andaman jail.
The author iterated that the petition was not something shameful, embarrassing or a symbol of cowardice as it is made out to be. “...people have been hairsplitting and saying that Gandhi said file a petition and not a mercy petition… there is nothing specifically called a mercy petition... a petition meant a clemency petition. People are clutching at straws and attempting to discredit a man who sacrificed a lot for this nation, which is very unfortunate,” he said.
Sampath also gave examples of CPI founder Shripad Dange and revolutionaries like Barin Ghosh, Sachindra Nath Sanyal and several others who had filed similar petitions from the cellular jail. Madan Mohan Malviya too had filed a petition on behalf of Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqulla Khan in the Kakori case.
He added that such letters between the colonial government and revolutionaries in the freedom struggle were very common and the language had to be very pleading. He also said that Savarkar makes a mention of his petitions in his autobiography in Marathi called ‘Mazi Janmthep’ and talks candidly about his petitions in another book called ‘Echoes from Andaman.’
In his own book, Sampath said, he has mentioned all eight petitions for readers to make it clear that it was never an apology for what he (Gandhi) did... he was asking for clarification of rights either as a political prisoner or as a common convict and concessions accordingly. He was also acting as a spokesperson for other political prisoners as he was a barrister.
While responding to a question if it was appropriate for a Union Minister to make such a statement, Sampath said Singh could have made the context clearer and crisper. He reiterated that these are not mercy petitions but petitions called ‘Yachika’ in Hindi.
“This is the flavor of the season… everyone is talking about Savarkar. Among the many elephants, this is one more elephant. Unfortunately, in today's polarized environment everything becomes politics and everything has to be brought to a low level of street fight which, unfortunately, is encouraged by the media... the divide and politicians keep giving this fodder. It is the historians who have to defend what politicians will say... not to defend them but to defend history,” he said.
Sampath, an engineer and mathematician by training, also emphasized that NCERT textbooks must have a balance of history of India for students of history to grow up and have pride for the nation.
He said it is a false understanding that if we tell the truth, especially of darker period of Indian history, of Islamic conquest, mass carnages, genocides of Hindus, plunder of temples, burning of our universities and obliteration of our civilisations, it is somehow going to upset contemporary social cohesion… is wrong.
“To think that young Muslims have to be identified only with these divisive figures is not only to undermine their intellect but also make them responsible… when you do that and play games with history it has a very perverted way of coming back to haunt you.
“Social conflicts, tensions, renaming of roads, buildings are manifestations that we have not made peace with the past. We need to come out of the wounds of the past and tell the truth as it is. Do not lay the albatross of that on any particular group because they are not responsible for it. On the contrary, it does not mean to whitewash and distort history just to make it palatable to someone today.”
On being asked how course correction can happen, Sampath said in the age of social media it is difficult for people to get away with the false narrative they spout. Social media is not the only way to debunk history. “More and more young people need to come forward and take part in a ‘National Project of Reconstruction of History of India’ seen through the eyes of India and Indians and not through the eyes of invaders, as an apology for invaders. The government should instruct the NCERT to change books that are an abomination and passionate private individuals interested in the discipline to start writing more research-based, fact-based and documentation-based counters rather than throwing falsehoods because books will last beyond our lifetime. This is our civilisational responsibility towards reclaiming our past with honesty and pride for the country.”
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