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Historians need to reevaluate our freedom struggle: Vikram Sampath talks about Congress being a British creation, Savarkar and more

I have always categorized Veer Savarkar as a historian's enigma, a bundle of contradictions.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

Ever since it’s release, scholar Vikram Sampath’s book, ‘Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past’ has earned great praise from every quarter. Touted to be the definitive biography on the great Hindutva thinker, Sampath’s book has garnered serious attention across ends of the political spectrum. had the opportunity to interview Sampath on the book which was released recently. The following is an interview conducted over an email conversation.

What inspired you to write this book?

Savarkar had been an addiction since the time I first heard about him in 2003-04 when the whole controversy of dislodging his plaque at the Cellular Jail by Mani Shankar Aiyar happened. We had no reference to him in our school history books -I had studied in the CBSE and ISC syllabus. Yet, this was a figure from the past who was intruding contemporary political discourse and that is what piqued my interest in him.

However, it’s only in the last 3-4 years that I managed to get down to serious research around him. A Senior Fellowship from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) further aided this process. I was quite amazed to know that a man who evokes such strong, polarizing reactions even now, and whose philosophy and thoughts have shaped India in so many ways and continue to do, has been so less researched or written about.

I have been rummaging several archives across India and abroad, gathering original archival and court documents—be it at the National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Maharashtra State Archives, the India Office at British Library London, National Archives of UK, archives in France, Germany etc. A lot about Savarkar and also his own writings are in Marathi and these have seldom been accessed by mainstream historians.

Accessing these documents opened up a new dimension to the man’s life and vision and helped clear the cobwebs that history and politics have shrouded his image in. Interviews with old-timers, his proponents and opponents and support from his family, especially his grandnephew Mr. Ranjit Savarkar, who heads the Savarkar Smarak in Mumbai, travels to various places associated with him from Bhagur, Nashik, Port Blair, Mumbai, London, etc completed the research journey.

This incidentally is just the first volume of the two-volume series and covers the story of his life from his birth in 1883 to his conditional release to Ratnagiri in 1924. The second volume would cover the remainder of the journey—the social reforms that he undertook in Ratnagiri, his active political days as President of All India Hindu Mahasabha and his alleged role in the Gandhi murder.

How is this book of yours different from the other books about Savarkar?

That is honestly for the readers to judge! But i can say that I have tried my level best to make this a balanced and authentic account of the man, without resorting to the usual extremes of hagiography or demonization that has largely been the trend with books on a subject as important and also contentious as Savarkar. Like I mentioned earlier, it is also based on extensive research and documentation across countries and also the Marathi writings and records that are seldom accessed.

In an article of yours, you had argued that Gandhi and Savarkar represented the poles of Indian politics. Considering the events since 2014, where the BJP has shown great reverence towards both of them, do you believe that dichotomy still exists?

Gandhi has become this overarching political father figure of whom every party now wants to draw inspiration from or appropriate. The BJP is thus doing the same and I am not judging their political compulsions. I am talking about the polarities from a strictly ideological and academic viewpoint. In that sense, the twain do not seem to converge on any issue.

In the prologue, you say that the book is neither a hagiography nor does it demonize Savarkar. So, could you tell our readers certain things about Veer Savarkar which the Hindu Right is likely to find problematic since we already know what the Left does not like about Savarkar?

I do not foresee anything that Savarkar said or did that the “Hindu Right” will or needs to have a problem with. His vision of a modern, progressive India where everyone is equal irrespective of caste, creed, religion, and one that is driven by an industrialized, rapidly urbanized capitalist model of the economy is what India is becoming to a large extent.

His modern views on social practices, be it caste system and its complete dismantling in order to ensure a Hindu unification or the total eradication of untouchability, are things that posit him in a very liberal light. If at all, his views on cow worship vs. cow protection might raise some hackles where he mentioned that while he had no objections to people worshipping the cow, he personally did not endorse it.

Priority was the cow’s protection and its utilitarian aspect for Savarkar. Hindutva’s reigning deity needed to be Narasimha and not a docile cow for him. He also drew attention to how invaders had always used the cow as a shield and protection to weaken us and for those wishing to convert and break up Hindu society to use the cow as a means to deracinate the community.

The Hindus must not give their opponents such a chance by being so emotionally attached to the cow, he maintained. So, while these are very controversial and provocative statements, if one mulls over them, the rationale becomes clear.

You have mentioned in your book that the Indian National Congress was formed as part of the British government’s strategy to further strengthen their hold over the country. Do you believe such a book could have been written at a time when the Congress party was still the dominant political power in the country? Do you believe these facts call for historians to relook at the events of the Indian independence movement from a more nuanced perspective?

Since I am not associated with any political party, I can say with certainty that this series is coming out now not because of the BJP or that the party is in power. Savarkar is an important figure in history and needs to be assessed and re-evaluated. It’s a historian’s burden for me to make this process possible. There has been no sponsorship or support from the Government or BJP or any organization associated with them in the writing of the book. Hence I do not attribute this book to them in any case.

What the Congress might have done is only speculative. Their track record when it comes to banning books and films that go against their ideology has been miserable, right from the times of Nehru to the UPA. So they might have well banned the book, maybe, but then this is again speculation.

Do historians need to re-evaluate our freedom struggle? Most certainly, especially since it’s been 72 years thence and it’s time to take a look again as a mature democracy must, in a dispassionate and authentic manner. The monochromatic narrative of the non-violent struggle that we have been fed for seven decades is now being challenged in the wake of more and more documents screaming to be heard and read that talk of a parallel freedom struggle, an armed revolution that had an unending chain right from the 1857 War of Independence to the 1946 Naval Mutiny in Bombay.

If we flip the historical narrative to make that the focus, then a completely different picture emerges. And history is a discipline with multiple view points, interpretations and assessments, so i feel this subaltern voice that has not found resonance so far, needs to be heard more and more through the works of several scholars. The rest is for the people of this country to make up their minds by comparative analysis of both accounts.

In your book, apart from Savarkar, you also touch upon a previous generation of like-minded freedom fighters such as Wasudev Balwant Phadke and the Chapekar brothers. In what ways, according to you, was Savarkar similar to them and in what ways did he differ?

Savarkar drew inspiration from these early revolutionaries. It was the execution of the Chapekar brothers that inspired him to take a vow in front of the idol of his family Goddess Ashta Bhuja Bhawani that he would keep fighting with the enemy till his last breath. Unlike his predecessors, Savarkar created strategic thinking and organization within the revolutionary movement.

Being the founder of the first organized Secret Society of India, the Mitra Mela (later became the Abhinav Bharat), he inspired thousands of young men across Maharashtra and outside to form part of these organizations. They called for arms training and creation of a network across India, especially with Bengal and Punjab to create a planned, coordinated and simultaneous armed uprising to overthrow the British.

This was in some ways a correction of the flaws of 1857. Savarkar also led the first student bonfires of foreign clothes in Pune in protest against the Partition of Bengal, as a student of Fergusson College. Theirs was among the first to give a call for “Complete Freedom” at a time when Moderates in the Congress were petitioning the Government for concessions and even the ‘Extremists’ were calling for ‘Responsive Cooperation’.

That these different revolutionary organizations did not achieve their goal entirely is another matter. Savarkar also created a vast intellectual corpus for the revolutionary movement. Savarkar’s five years in London were stormy and with a host of amazing revolutionaries—Shyamaji Krishnaverma, Madame Bhikaji Cama, Lala Har Dayal., Madan Lal Dhingra, Virendranath Chattopadhyay, MPT Acharya, VVS Aiyar, Sardar Singh Rana and others became a kingpin of a vast intercontinental effort to liberate India through armed struggle.

Savarkar’s works –the biography of Italian revolutionary Joseph Mazzini and his magnum opus on the 1857 uprising which he called as the First War of Indian Independence for the first time were veritable Bibles for the revolutionary movement in India. they inspired future revolutionaries, be it Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev who made a study of these criteria for entry into their HSRA or Rash Behari Bose and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who had copies translated and distributed to several members of the INA.

As Rash Behari Bose said in a Japanese magazine Dai Aija Shugi of March-April 1939 where he called Savarkar “A rising leader of New India”- “In saluting you, I have the joy of doing my duty towards one of my elderly comrades in arms. In saluting you, I am saluting the very symbol of sacrifice itself.”

How much of an impact did the work of Bal Gangadhar Tilak have on Savarkar?

Tilak and the editor of the Kaal Magazine Shivaram Mahadev Paranjape were his ideological gurus. He grew up reading the writings of Tilak and Paranjape and was deeply influenced by them. In fact, both of them recommended him to Shyamaji Krishnaverma for a scholarship to study law in London. But Savarkar went beyond Tilak’s idea of responsive cooperation to complete freedom through armed struggle and revolution.

What, according to you, is Savarkar’s greatest contribution to Indian politics?

Creation of a Hindu identity that had never existed so far; consolidation of Hindu society without the fetters of caste and creed. When every other community was being mobilized on their religious identities, be it the Khilafat movement by Gandhi that sought the Muslims to act for the sake of Caliphate in Turkey or the rampant conversions through force and allurement, it was unfair to expect the Hindu to take all of this quietly only because she was in the majority. This “Hindu consciousness” which need not be at odds or in conflict with other religions and identities and which has now become such an integral part of Indian politics is in my view Savarkar’s greatest contribution.

What is your personal opinion of Savarkar?

I have always categorized him as a historian’s enigma, a bundle of contradictions. He means many things to many people. But nonetheless, his life, his views and his philosophy are critical to be examined to understand the trajectory that India has taken and continues to take.

Lastly, considering that your book has a lot of facts that certain ends of the political spectrum don’t like discussing too much, did you face any difficulty finding publishers for your book?

Not at all. Penguin Randomhouse India was more than happy to commission this project and I am deeply thankful to my editor Premanka Goswami and Meru Gokhale of PRHI for reposing the faith in this book!

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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