Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the icon of the Sangh Parivar who popularised the term ‘Hindutva’, filed mercy petitions before the British only at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh claimed on Tuesday.
“The truth is he did not file these petitions for his release,” Singh claimed at the launch of a book titled Veer Savarkar: The Man Who Could Have Prevented Partition. “Generally a prisoner has [the] right to file a mercy petition. Mahatma Gandhi had asked that he [Savarkar] file a mercy petition.”
“And Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar should be released. He had said that the way we [freedom fighters] are running a movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.”
The minister claimed that Savarkar had inspired people to break the shackles of slavery and his “views and work on the practice of untouchability had inspired BR Ambedkar”, the architect of India’s constitution.
Singh also called Savarkar a true freedom fighter and said his contribution to the independence struggle could not be ignored. “You only think how strong was his resolve to free the country that the British awarded him life sentence twice,” he claimed.
Savarkar was jailed in 1911 for two terms of 50 years each for waging war against the British king and the assassination of a government official.
However, within months of beginning his sentence in Cellular Jail, the Hindutva ideologue was begging the British for mercy. He pleaded for clemency several time until he was finally transferred to a mainland prison in 1921, before his final release in 1924. One such petition read, in part: “…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.” [Scroll down for the full petition, written in 1913.]
The Sangh Parivar has been trying to rehabilitate its ideologue for several years now, and Singh’s lengthy defence of him should be seen in that context. However, several people on social media pointed out that the defence minister was being loose with facts, with one user saying he was “peddling WhatsApp propaganda”.
Historian Irfan Habib said in a tweet: “Yes, monochromatic history writing is really changing, led by the minister who claims Gandhi asked Savarkar to write mercy petitions. At least it is accepted now that he did write. No documentary evidence needed when minister makes a claim. New history for New India.”
Congress leader Gaurav Pandhi pointed out that Cellular Jail inmates were not allowed to contact outsiders.
Rakesh Sharma, a documentary filmmaker whose most notable work is the feature-length documentary Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots, pointed out that Gandhi returned to India from South Africa only in 1915.
Savarkar’s petition, written in 1913 from Cellular Jail
To: The Home Member of the Government of India
I beg to submit the following points for your kind consideration:(1) When I came here in 1911 June, I was along with the rest of the convicts of my party taken to the office of the Chief Commissioner. There I was classed as “D” meaning dangerous prisoner; the rest of the convicts were not classed as “D”. Then I had to pass full 6 months in solitary confinement. The other convicts had not. During that time I was put on the coir pounding though my hands were bleeding. Then I was put on the oil-mill – the hardest labour in the jail. Although my conduct during all the time was exceptionally good still at the end of these six months I was not sent out of the jail; though the other convicts who came with me were. From that time to this day I have tried to keep my behaviour as good as possible.(2) When I petitioned for promotion I was told I was a special class prisoner and so could not be promoted. When any of us asked for better food or any special treatment we were told “You are only ordinary convicts and must eat what the rest do”. Thus Sir, Your Honour would see that only for special disadvantages we are classed as special prisoners.
(3) When the majority of the casemen were sent outside I requested for my release. But, although I had been cased (caned?) hardly twice or thrice and some of those who were released, for a dozen and more times, still I was not released with them because I was their casemen. But when after all, the order for my release was given and when just then some of the political prisoners outside were brought into the troubles I was locked in with them because I was their casemen.
(4) If I was in Indian jails I would have by this time earned much remission, could have sent more letters home, got visits. If I was a transportee pure and simple I would have by this time been released, from this jail and would have been looking forward for ticket-leave, etc. But as it is, I have neither the advantages of the Indian jail nor of this convict colony regulation; though had to undergo the disadvanatges of both.
(5) Therefore will your honour be pleased to put an end to this anomalous situation in which I have been placed, by either sending me to Indian jails or by treating me as a transportee just like any other prisoner. I am not asking for any preferential treatment, though I believe as a political prisoner even that could have been expected in any civilized administration in the Independent nations of the world; but only for the concessions and favour that are shown even to the most depraved of convicts and habitual criminals? This present plan of shutting me up in this jail permanently makes me quite hopeless of any possibility of sustaining life and hope. For those who are term convicts the thing is different, but Sir, I have 50 years staring me in the face! How can I pull up moral energy enough to pass them in close confinement when even those concessions which the vilest of convicts can claim to smoothen their life are denied to me? Either please to send me to Indian jail for there I would earn (a) remission; (b) would have a visit from my people come every four months for those who had unfortunately been in jail know what a blessing it is to have a sight of one’s nearest and dearest every now and then! (c) and above all a moral – though not a legal – right of being entitled to release in 14 years; (d) also more letters and other little advantages. Or if I cannot be sent to India I should be released and sent outside with a hope, like any other convicts, to visits after 5 years, getting my ticket leave and calling over my family here. If this is granted then only one grievance remains and that is that I should be held responsible only for my own faults and not of others. It is a pity that I have to ask for this – it is such a fundamental right of every human being! For as there are on the one hand, some 20 political prisoners – young, active and restless, and on the other the regulations of a convict colony, by the very nature of them reducing the liberties of thought and expression to lowest minimum possible; it is but inevitable that every now and then some one of them will be found to have contravened a regulation or two and if all be held responsible for that, as now it is actually done – very little chance of being left outside remains for me.
In the end may I remind your honour to be so good as to go through the petition for clemency, that I had sent in 1911, and to sanction it for being forwarded to the Indian Government?
The latest development of the Indian politics and the conciliating policy of the government have thrown open the constitutional line once more.
Now no man having the good of India and Humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress.
Therefore 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.
As long as we are in jails there cannot be real happiness and joy in hundreds and thousands of homes of His Majesty’s loyal subjects in India, for blood is thicker than water; but if we be released the people will instinctively raise a shout of joy and gratitude to the government, who knows how to forgive and correct, more than how to chastise and avenge.
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. By keeping me in jail nothing can be got in comparison to what would be otherwise.
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?
Hoping your Honour will kindly take into notion these points.
(From R.C. Majumdar, Penal Settlements in the Andamans, Publications Division, 1975)