Did Savarkar write the controversial biography?
I decided to read Barrister Savarkar and see for myself how exactly Savarkar lost all sense of proportion in deciding to write a eulogy of himself and call it a biography by another man.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar rarely stays out of the news these days. The right in India routinely hails him as a brave freedom fighter, or the height of patriotism. The left just as often rubbishes him as a coward and a loyalist. The latest round of this recurring debate unfolded over the last week or so. There were unconfirmed rumours that the government of India will soon honour Savarkar with a Bharat Ratna. Earlier, the BJP manifesto for the Maharastra elections had promised a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar.
One of the recent objections against Savarkar’s unfitness for honours makes a relatively fresh point. Senior journalist P Sainath had claimed, in a lecture in 2018, that Savarkar was a shameless self-trumpeter. As evidence, he referred to a book called The Life of Barrister Savarkar. The book, which was written by one Chitra Gupta, had been an unqualified eulogy to Savarkar, according to Sainath. It was first published in 1926. A reprint of the book by the organisers of Savarkar’s birth centenary celebrations in 1987 includes a new introduction, with the claim that Savarkar himself wrote the book. Sainath, therefore, claimed that Savarkar was a small man with a weak character. He not only wrote mercy petitions but also wrote and arranged for the publication of books in his own praise.
Sainath was not by any means the first to make the point that Savarkar was a shameless self-promoter. Pavan Kulkarni published an article in The Wire on May 28, 2017, in which he explicitly criticises Savarkar as a man without a sense of modesty. Kulkarni wrote that Savarkar, in his ‘autobiography masquerading as biography written by a different author’, did not mince words in the name of modesty or literary minimalism. The Wire replugged the article on May 28, 2018. May 28, incidentally, is Savarkar’s birthday.
At least one version of this book in the centre of this fresh round of alternate valorisation and vilification of Savarkar is available online. It is professedly the 1987 reprint, though I have not had the time to verify the veracity of this claim beyond all dispute. The earlier editions, of 1926 or 1936, are extinct, or so says the introduction to the 1987 edition. That is not true, for Google books claims to have a digital version of the 1936 edition, although I could not access it. I decided to read the book and see for myself how exactly Savarkar lost all sense of proportion in deciding to write a eulogy of himself and call it a biography by another man.
Barrister Savarkar is not exactly a biography. It is something of a polemic, an anecdotal pen portrait, the kind that is served to children, for instance, to inspire them, or to a large and popular audience, which does not much care for considered opinion or nuances. Everything here is dramatised, or heightened for effect, as though someone is telling a story to a captive audience. But I am not sure that its authorship must be attributed to Savarkar. The preface to the 1987 volume, which incidentally is rechristened The Life of Veer Savarkar, offers practically no solid evidence in support of the claim.
The preface is written in error-riddled English prose. The writer, Ravindra Vaman Ramdas, only once vaguely refers to a lively description of a morning in Paris, as though it could not be written without the writer having been there. It is at best a weak evidence. The assumed certainty of Ramdas may well reflect an open secret among the Savarkar loyalists. Perhaps they knew some special information that Savarkar did not wish to leave in print. There are two equally arguable possibilities. Either Savarkar did not write the book or he was not proud of having written it. If he did write it, and I am not certain he did, it is useful to ask why he had to disown it all his life, especially after 1947. There was no need any more to guard against the colonial police or law, which might or might not have found something objectionable in valorising Savarkar.
The pamphlet begins with lavish praise for Chitpavan Brahmans. It was appropriate, it claims, that a future great like Savarkar was born in a highly accomplished caste like Chitpavans. It claims the young Vinayak was a gifted child. He composed poems since he was 10. But hatred for Muslims too he had picked up at 15. He heard that Muslims had been destroying temples in Bombay. In retaliation, he resolved to attack mosques near his home village. The decision was arrived at following a vote among 15-year-olds, organised by the young and enterprising Vinayak. The kids were reimagining themselves as Shivaji and his associates. Incidentally, once during the description of the juvenile assault on the mosque the pronoun we is used. But the sentence gets its grammar wrong.
In the common sense of their naive youth, they’d sometimes hold mock fights and Vinayak fancied himself as a military general. The warring parties would be Hindus on the one hand, and Muslims or Christians on the other. Savarkar had already developed an assumption as a teenager that both Muslims and English were as alien to India as Hindus were internal to it. The Hindus always had to win, since they always had to have more courage and intelligence. That is how a teenage Savarkar appears to have gradually cultivated a communalist common sense, in which a religious community doubled up as a race or a nation. When he had been a teenager, these three terms, historically speaking, often overlapped in the minds of major contemporary intellectuals. In addition, his reading at home may have contributed to it. He was exposed to epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, as much as hagiographies of Bhakti saints and Maratha icons such as Shivaji and subsequent Maratha military greats such as the Peswas. There were oral histories of the early proto-nationalist rebellions of Vasudeo Balwant Phadke. He had read quite a bit of English too and was well exposed to Romantic poetry and common sense versions of Western Liberal political ideas and institutions, such as republicanism or democracy. Such diversity of perspectives and entanglement of contrarian histories could not have been easy for a lower-middle-class boy in the late nineteenth-century small-town Maharastra to process into a coherent world view. Many would not even bother to try. But the young Vinayak was evidently a precocious boy.
He discussed contemporary nationalist politics with elders and teachers and learnt to hail nationalist political assassins as martyrs. Once, he had a private conservation with goddess Durga and resolved to sacrifice his life in the cause of the nation. The book describes these moments in the first person. The prose in these first-person mediated sections is basic and the tone melodramatic. The book claims it was in this fierce resolve that the seeds of Abhinava Bharat were sown. The actual organisation, but of course, lay in the future. It has to be remembered that the narration purportedly took place in the 1920s, and was in retrospect. The writer knew it was a tall claim. He wrote that such fierce resolve might appear impossible in an early teenager, but it was real enough for him. This impulse to set him up as an individual dramatically above the ordinary recurs in almost every paragraph.
Meanwhile, his father was consumed by the plague epidemic and his two brothers too suffered from it. There was a moment when it seemed they too might die. Fortunately, they recovered and the family of three brothers was once more relatively stable. By now, the family had relocated to Nashik, and Vinayak took to setting up a secret society.
He went to Fergusson College at Pune, where he soon acquired a name as a powerful reader, orator and organiser. The writer did not mention what he studied there. He would study hard and always kept passing and made sure his fellow politically invested students too passed with honour. He had almost singlehandedly organised a bonfire of foreign clothes during the Swadeshi movement. It earned him the disapproval of College authorities but great popularity in the nationalist press.
There is repeated emphasis on the fact that he passed all his academic examinations even though he had been politically active and rarely attended classes. The root of this anxiety is unclear. What clearing academic tests meant to Savarkar or the writer, remains to be understood. It probably means the writer did not like anyone who did not pass his academic tests, as though passing exams was some kind of a basic qualification to respectability. Yet, the pamphlet did not attach any substantive value to academic learning as a focused pursuit. It was a key to respectability but did not have to be given much time or taken very seriously. All one must do is pass in the first attempt. In fact, the book once figuratively refers to the university curriculum as a ‘fetter’ of sorts. Or it might be trying to suggest that Savarkar knew the tricks of passing exams better than most.
There is also a recurring tendency to blow up his achievements. He had been rusticated ‘from the College residencies’ for 24 hours for participating in the Swadeshi movement. Having mentioned this detail, honestly enough, the book kept referring to the episode as a full-fledged rustication, as though he had been barred from the college forever. It was probably counting on the presumed naïveté of readers and aiming at a readership only modestly literate in English. The book appears to be thought up in popular Marathi and awkwardly translated into English, by a rather average mind, given to overdramatising modest accomplishments.
The foundation of Abhinava Bharat is recalled as a grand spectacle. It was a public assembly of some two hundred secret societies, all there responding to a call by a just out of college Vinayak. He threw himself into extensive lecture tours all over Maharashtra. Evocative ballads were sung everywhere he went in rapturous ceremonies, including some of his own compositions. They reportedly survived into the 1920s, even if the pamphlets in which they were written and circulated were seized and destroyed by the police later. It is strange indeed that the author did not bother including even one of those in the book.
It was stranger that Savarkar decided to study further even if the university curriculum appeared to be a ‘fetter’ to him. Syamji Krishnavarma was offering scholarships for Indian students to study law and politics in England. It was called a Shivaji scholarship or fellowship, and the book uses both terms. Savarkar chose to apply and Tikak was one of his referees. The scholarship was his, and he went to London. Everything at this moment seemed magical. How Krishnavarma had access to these scholarships is unclear, and how it was all so smooth sailing for Savarkar is even more so. Meanwhile, he had got married. His father in law was a senior official in a princely state. He partly sponsored Vinayak’s London trip.
Until now he had not been arrested even once. The book claims the government once seriously considered arresting him. But it was somehow convinced that he would fall in love with the material wealth of Britain and turn into a gentrified dandy. The book claims he had gone to Fergusson College since he had to convert the brightest men from all over Maharashtra who went there, to his ‘revolutionary’ cause. He reportedly went to England for the same reason, since the most intelligent Indians went there to study and train as professionals.
The latter is not an overstatement. Rich and famous Indians did indeed send their sons to the United Kingdom as a means to prepare them for a successful career in India. But it is harder to understand why Savarkar’s ambition to be rich and famous, which is a legitimate ambition, must be rationalised as a means to a higher, almost divine, mission. Vinayak grandly told his admirers, the book claims, that he was going to London to convert the future barristers, professors and bureaucrats to the cause of the ‘revolution’. Either Vinayak was a destiny’s child who knew the future like the palm of his hand, or he was uncommonly ambitious. The latter is not at all unlikely for intelligent young men from a modest vernacular middle-class background.
Once in London, he seems to have done nothing but organise secret societies and public lectures and dismiss peaceful resistance to the colonial rule as utterly contemptible. He soon took over the India House meetings, after Krishnavarma had to leave Britain. He had by then reportedly chosen Savarkar as his deputy in London. But the book refrains from offering details on the activities of Abhinava Bharat in London. It invoked the volatile political situation in India as the reason for its reticence. It is hard to understand why the 1987 edition did not add some more detail. By then, the political situation in India must have become more positive for a detailed assessment of Savarkar’s work in Europe.
Meanwhile, the unsympathetic official response in India to the Swadeshi and boycott movement inspired young aspirants for a violent overthrow of the colonial rule. They were looking for bomb manufacturing manuals. After several false starts, one was found from a Russian exile. The same manual reportedly then circulated among various secret societies all over India, including in Bengal and Allahabad. Savarkar at this time was leading a double life, according to government reports, as claimed in the book. He would teach young revolutionaries how to make bombs in the morning at the India House, and would rush later to deliver inspiring public lectures on history and politics to ‘packed Indian audiences’.
The bomb was a new element in Indian politics and forced a basic change in its value and means, claims the book. The claim is certainly not invalid. It is hard, however, to digest the implied claim that the arrival of the bomb in Indian politics was singlehandedly made possible by Savarkar. The courage of the Indian students in England, or their ‘heroic mania’, to secure the design and manufacture of bombs, must indeed be commended. Yet, even here the book refuses to offer details, once again, citing lack of space. It meant only to communicate the thrill that lively activities in India House had commanded in the minds of those student activists, without releasing any actual detail whatsoever. As such, it was likely only to whip up popular sentiment.
Yet again, political work failed to inhibit Savarkar from writing up two purportedly impressive works of history. One was a Marathi translation of Mazzini’s writing, which immediately became a bestseller. People took to memorising passages from Savarkar’s introduction, and later, when the government banned it, hid it carefully as a patriotic duty.
In 1909, he wrote the Indian War of Independence, probably setting 1857 up as the Indian version of the first Italian War of Independence of 1848. For some strange reason, neither Savarkar’s supporters or his left critics rarely dealt at any length with this historiographical aspect of the book. This omission is striking especially because many distinguished historians have later more or less accepted this characterisation of the 1857 rebellion. It may be useful in future to read it at greater length. The actual scholarly heft of these works must at some point be seriously ascertained, although it must be conceded that they were largely polemical tracts. There is no escaping the fact yet that it raised a valid enough question, historiographically speaking. Likewise, his counter-campaign to celebrate the leaders of 1857 in 1907 in protest against the British government attempt to revile them must at some point be commended by even his critics, for the sake of fairness alone.
Some Indian students reportedly lost their scholarships when they were punished for demanding an apology from an English professor who had called those leaders murderers. Yet again, the ‘biography’ does not offer a single name. There can be absolutely no reason to hide the names of these bold students, even in 1926. If the government had to cause them harm, they would have access to those names anyway.
Savarkar was from then on virulently attacked by the English press while he got busy building contacts with Sinn Fein and other ‘revolutionary’ groups. He had thought of working towards engineering simultaneous armed uprisings in all ‘anti-British disaffected nations’ such as Irish, Indian, Chinese and Turkish. The book claims that the credit for attracting the sympathies of the world at large to the Indian nationalist struggle must belong to the pioneering propaganda work by Abhinava Bharat in Europe.
Violent resistance against the British colonial state meanwhile acquired momentum in India, and Vinayak’s elder brother Ganesh was among the earliest to be punished with deportation on charges of sedition. Savarkar himself was barred from entering India. The book described with great pathos this blow on the Savarkar family; two adult brothers disallowed from tending to it, and a minor brother and his sister in law left to fend for themselves. Savarkar wrote a lofty letter to his sister in law, hoping that God would grant her strength, and resumed his political activities as before. Yet again, he successfully passed all his academic tests and was now eligible to be called to the bar. But the Benches of the Grey’s Inn filed a case against him, but later softened their position. They agreed to grant him his degree provided he wrote an undertaking that he would not engage in any seditious political activity. Savarkar argued that it was unnecessary because the courts had the power to punish him for sedition anyway. He was not called to the bar, but his name was not struck off the list of potentially eligible barristers. He was given to understand that he could claim his degree once the Benches were satisfied that he no longer engaged in politics.
He publicly opposed a resolution by Indians in London condemning the assassination of Curzon Willie by Madanlal Dhingra, on the ground that it was not unanimously passed even though the president had so declared. It must have required a great deal of courage, whichever way it is interpreted. The police and detectives would regularly shadow Savarkar and his associates. His family in India was subjected to state oppression. His father in law and several relatives were either prosecuted or lost jobs. His younger brother was arrested for a suspected assassination attempt on the Viceroy, leaving his sister in law alone at home. He was forced to live like a fugitive, changing homes every other day and rarely getting enough sleep. He had eventually to leave London. He left England altogether subsequently.
It is here that the only time nature is described in the book with some warmth. It is the description of a morning in Paris. Savarkar was reading newspapers. The roads were broad and smooth, the weather was pleasant, there were small ponds by the side, in which swans and other birds were merrily swimming and cackling. The poetic sensibility in this passage makes Ramdas suspect that Savarkar himself wrote the book. Frankly, though, there is nothing in those few dubiously lyrical lines that cannot be written by anyone who has heard a few stories of Paris or any other large and beautifully curated European city. They bear very little literary merit, and if Savarkar wrote them, he made a terrible wordsmith, at least in English. I have not read his Marathi, and for all I know, his Marathi may indeed be top class.
The book continues further, but this is where the best part of its stories ended. It is not at all clear to me that Savarkar wrote the pamphlet himself. If he did, he certainly wrote a somewhat limited English which was riddled with interminable sentences and struggles with grammar at almost every single page. The most that can be said is it was probably a translation or transcription of his dictation, years after the events actually took place. There are few accurate or detailed descriptions of events anyway, except that they all seem to portray Savarkar as a deputy of God on earth, born to carry out a divine mission. If Savarkar wrote it, he probably could not bring himself to admit that he produced such a childish eulogy, and did not have the heart to own up to it.