Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar
A freedom fighter, India's Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) began calling for his country's independence from Britain as early as 1900. As a college student, he rallied his peers and became a popular leader of the Hindu Nationalist Movement. Jailed on charges of conspiracy and waging war against the British throne, he spent more than a dozen years in prison and faded into the background of the free India movement. On an international level, Savarkar is not as well–known as other independence leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, but in his homeland, Savarkar remains a household name.
Raised a Hindu
The second of four children, Savarkar was born May 28, 1883, in the western Indian village of Bhagur. At the time of Savarkar's birth, India was a British colony, ruled over by the British Monarchy. Savarkar's father, Damodarpant, was a stern disciplinarian and religious– minded man. His mother, Radhabai, was known as a gentle soul. Most nights before bed, Savarkar's mother insisted the family read from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. Both are ancient epic poems that explore the Hindu philosophy and are central teachings of the Hindu faith. They explore the Hindu gods and goddesses and delve into the notion of karma.
At the age of six, Savarkar started attending the village school. He became an insatiable reader, poring over every newspaper or book that came his way. He was particularly interested in history and poetry. When he was 10, Savarkar submitted several of his poems to the newspapers in nearby Pune and they were published by editors who had no idea they came from a child.
Though Savarkar was only a youngster, he was aware of the tensions between the Hindus and Muslims who populated his country. In 1893, the hostility escalated as riots broke out between the two groups in the city of Bombay and also in the Azamgarh district. Many Hindus were killed during the riots and after reading about some of the atrocities committed against his fellow Hindus, Savarkar was determined to seek justice. He flew into a rampage and gathered his friends for a mission. Under Savarkar's direction, they stormed the village mosque and pelted it with stones, breaking the windows and tiles. Around this same time, Savarkar's mother died of cholera and he was grief– stricken.
As a teenager, Savarkar moved to nearby Nasik to attend high school. There, he impressed teachers with his writing and speaking abilities. He wrote ballads for the village chorus and penned an article, “The Glory of Hindustan,” which appeared in the local paper. Just as Savarkar was coming into his own, tragedy struck again. His father and uncle died of the plague in 1899 and his brothers were sickened as well, though they recovered. Over the next few years, Savarkar worked to promote the idea of independence for India—and a Hindustan nation in particular. He also married the daughter of Bhaurao Chiplunkar. Savarkar's father–in–law, rich and influential, provided funds for him to continue his education.
Incited India's Independence Movement
In January 1902, Savarkar left Nasik to continue his studies at Fergusson College in nearby Pune. By now, he was more interested in working for India's freedom from British rule than he was in getting an education. In Pune, he promoted the use of Indian–made goods and called for a boycott of all foreign–made products. He despised everything English and told his peers to abstain from purchasing English goods. He gave many speeches at the college aimed at germinating the desire for independence among his peers. A wave of nationalism was sweeping across the country and he wanted his classmates to jump on board.
In his talks, Savarkar discussed some of history's successful revolutions, including those in Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States. He noted the nasty skirmishes associated with quests for independence so his peers would know what the country was in for. Crowds of students gathered to hear him speak. In 1904, he organized an underground revolutionary group called the Abhinava Bharat—or Young India Society. Under Savarkar's direction, the group posted explosive literature critical of the British empire and its treatment of the Indian people.
On October 7, 1905, Savarkar staged his first dissident act when he incited a group of students to burn a pile of foreign clothes. He hoped to launch a boycott of foreign cloth in favor of cloth created on Indian looms. It was the first such bonfire in India. Over the next few decades, as the battle for independence heightened, such bonfires became common and invoked a spirit of nationalism. At the time, though, moderates disapproved of Savarkar's antics. Even Gandhi criticized the bonfire, believing boycott movements had their roots in hatred and violence, which he did not condone. Years later, however, Gandhi endorsed the use of bonfires to destroy imported goods. In general, most of Savarkar's professors admired his intellect but felt uneasy when he touted his revolutionary views. He was fined for his involvement with the bonfire and forbidden to live on campus. Fergusson College was, after all, a state–funded institution with loyalty to the British crown. Savarkar graduated later that year.
Moved to London
In 1906, Savarkar applied for a scholarship to study in London. The scholarship was being offered by Shyamji Krishnavarma, a wealthy Indian who lived in London. According to the autobiography Veer Savarkar by Dhananjay Keer, Savarkar wrote this on his application: “Independence and Liberty I look upon as the very pulse and breath of nation. From my boyhood, dear sir, upto this moment of my youth, the loss of Independence of my country and the possibility of regaining it form the only theme of which I dreamt by night and on which I mused by day.”
Savarkar's benefactor Krishnavarma himself was interested in the independence movement and readily gave the scholarship to Savarkar. He sailed for London in 1906, intending to study law. While in London, he set about recruiting Indian students who were studying abroad and established the Free India Society to organize students for the revolutionary movement. Back home, the Abhinava Bharat was in contact with revolutionary leaders from Russia, Ireland, Egypt and China. Savarkar envisioned the groups forming a large anti–British front, with each group revolting concurrently against the British empire. Savarkar urged the Abhinava Bharat to prepare for war by arming themselves. They smuggled pistols, hidden in false books, into India. Savarkar even went so far as to send some of his peers to study bomb–making.
Though Savarkar successfully completed his studies and passed England's barrister examination, he had trouble getting his law degree because of his anti–government activities. Administrators told Savarkar he could have his degree on one condition: that he sign a paper saying he would refrain from participating in politics. He, of course, refused.
Jailed for Political Dissidence
By 1909, tensions in India between Savarkar's revolutionaries and the British authorities were mounting. A British magistrate and collector in Nasik, Arthur M.T. Jackson, was assassinated and two bombs were thrown at a British viceroy in a failed assassination attempt. Savarkar's younger brother was arrested in the bomb plot. Authorities in Bombay sent a telegraphic arrest warrant to London and Savarkar was arrested in March 1910. He was placed on a steamship headed for India, where he was to stand trial.
During the voyage, Savarkar slipped through a porthole while the ship was docked in Marseilles, France. He swam for the dock and was chased by British officers. As he ran through the streets, he demanded to be taken to a magistrate because he wanted to seek asylum in France, but it was to no avail. Savarkar was recaptured and turned back over to the authority of the British officers and sent back to Bombay. Savarkar, however, maintained that the French had no right to release him into British custody once he had stepped on French soil and sought refuge as a political prisoner. The matter ended up before the International Hague Tribunal, which ruled the handover had been done in accordance with international law.
Once back in Bombay, Savarkar was put on trial. According to the New York Times, he faced charges of “waging war against his Majesty the Emperor of India,” “conspiracy to deprive His Majesty of the sovereignty of British India” and procuring and distributing arms. He was sentenced to 50 years and sent to prison in the Andaman Islands, located on the Bay of Bengal. Savarkar's plight made international news and his situation alerted the world to the growing unrest in India.
Life at the prison was grueling. Savarkar spent many days in solitary confinement and had to endure bad food, unsanitary conditions and hard labor. He suffered from dysentery. Many days he picked oakum—a loose hemp or jute fiber that was treated with tar and used to caulk the seams of wooden ships. Other days, he was used like a “workhorse” at the oil mill—forced to walk in circles for hours on end, his physical movements powering the grinding machines.
Later in life, Savarkar wrote a memoir of his prison years titled My Transportation for Life. In it, he recounted his first days in jail and the despair that passed over him. “Fifty year of prison–life, alone and in a solitary cell like this! To pass my life, to count the hours of the day as they sounded and rolled on into months and years till they completed the long, inevitable, unredeemed, dark period of fifty years! What a hell on earth? Yet I had to live it.”
Savarkar tried to make the best of his situation. Forbidden to have pencil or paper, he was unable to continue helping the independence movement, though he yearned to write dispatches. He thought of other famous prisoners, including John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim's Progress from behind bars. Savarkar decided he would use this time to compose an epic poem. As Savarkar composed verses, he scribbled them on the prison walls with thorns and memorized thousands of lines so they could be published later.
Led Hindu Nationalist Movement
In 1921, Savarkar was moved to a jail in Ratnagiri, on India's southwest coast. He was finally released from jail in January 1924 on the condition that he not leave the Ratnagiri district nor have any involvement with politics. After leaving prison, Savarkar wrote plays, poetry, novels and magazine articles. He also urged Indian leaders to abolish the caste system and argued that the “untouchables”—the people with the lowest social status—should be allowed in the temples because he believed all Hindus were equal. In 1937, the British government eased his restrictions and he became president of the All–India Hindu Mahasabha, a leading force in the Hindu Nationalist Movement.
Savarkar lived to see India become a sovereign nation. In 1947, the British empire granted India its freedom. One of the great leaders of the independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated the following year. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu radical linked to the Hindu Mahasabha, the group Savarkar was heavily involved with. Savarkar was implicated in the murder on charges of conspiracy and stood trial, though he was acquitted. The association damaged Savarkar's reputation and left a stain on his legacy. Decades later, he was still viewed as a hero by some and a radical villain by others, who continued to seek evidence to prove a connection between Savarkar and Godse.
Savarkar died February 26, 1966, in Bombay, India. According to the New York Times, upon Savarkar's death, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, wife of slain leader Mahatma Gandhi, issued a statement saying, “Mr. Savarkar's name has been a byword for daring and patriotism. He was cast in the mold of a classical revolutionary, and countless people drew inspiration from him. Death removes from our midst a great figure in contemporary India.”
Keer, Dhananjay, Veer Savarkar, Popular Prakashan, 1966.
McKean, Lise, Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement, University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Savarkar, Veer, My Transportation For Life, Prakashan, 1984.
Hindu, December 16, 2003; September 29, 2004.
New York Times, February 15, 1911; February 25, 1911; February 27, 1966.
Statesman (India), June 1, 2003.