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The Reel Savarkar

By Niranjan Ramakrishnan

25 March, 2004

In the early years of the 20th century, a young Maharashtrian Brahmin from Ratnagiri goes to London to study law. Coming from a nationalist family, he is soon in contact with some of the other Indian patriots in London. The young student, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), jumps into this small group of dissenters. Far away from their country, yet nobly drawn to do something for its freedom, raging at what Britain has done to India but impotent to punish her, these young men and their academician mentor, Shyamaji Krisnavarma (another newfound icon of the BJP's effort to recast history and find freedom struggle heroes with a Saffronite bent - slim pickings, unfortunately) revel in little, largely inconsequential, conspiratorial eddies (usually attempted assassination), whose purpose (unrealized) is to assuage their own egos.

It is at this stage that we first encounter Savarkar in director Ved Rahi's film about his life, now doing the rounds in North America.

Savarkar comes across as an intense person who is able to inspire others to commit acts of violence. In 1908, one of his acolytes, Madanlal Dhingra, shoots an English official, for which he is hanged. Gandhi condemned the act unequivocally. Savarkar's response is unclear -- he is shown disrupting a meeting of Indians to condemn Dhingra's action, but never says anything definitive to outline his philosophy.

Two kinds of revolutionaries fought for India's freedom. One was of the Gandhian kind, who suffered and courted imprisonment, all peacefully. The other was of the Bhagat Singh and Bagha Jatin variety, who fought the British with arms, and had the courage to go to the gallows for his acts. Savarkar, who fit neither category, was unique. He instigated and incited others to die for his beliefs, quite happy to avoid the gallows himself.

"No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force", wrote George Orwell once. While Orwell was speaking of post World War I consciousness, defining this as the central tenet of fascism, Savarkar believed in it reflexively, long before Orwell's words were written. Throughout his life he was fascinated with violence. His political career began with sending guns to India in ones and twos, packed inside hollowed out books, sending bomb-making instructions to India, gleaned from Russian Revolutionaries -- things which when our enemies do today we call 'terrorism'. It ended with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

Savarkar is soon arrested by the British authorities, who had also banned his book on the 1857 revolt. While being transported to India by ship, he jumps into the sea and escapes to the shore in Marseilles, France, only to be chased and caught by the British and taken to India (spending the rest of the journey in irons). After a trial in Bombay, during which he remains curiously silent (no "History will vindicate me" speech), he is banished to the Andamans (Kala Pani), the Gulag of British India.

It is at this point, it would appear, that director Rahi decided to not let any more facts stand in the way of a stirring hagiography.

Where do we start? Savarkar is shown as a leader of Indian prisoners in the Andamans. This is not quite how other Andaman prisoners remember it. Some have recalled that the Savarkar brothers refused to join them (other Indian prisoners) in their protests, because (in Savarkar's words), "Why should we lose our hard earned special privileges?". Contrary to the picture drawn by the film, the archival records reveal that Savarkar appealed for clemency in rather dulcet tones within a year of his reaching the Andamans. Indeed, in one of his communications, he says, "...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 ... 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."

The film does not mention the appeal. It does introduce a new element, however. Contradicting everything we've read about the freedom struggle, of how the years in jail united Hindus and Muslims (indeed, this is a pretty good rule of thumb -- those leaders, Hindus or Muslims, who spent time in British jails in the Freedom Struggle, were generally secularists; men like Jinnah and Golwalkar, who never did, were generally communalists), one the first issues Savarkar is shown raising (after first having sought permission to meet his brother), is Hindu conversions to Islam in the Andaman prison. This is news indeed. The film seeks to indicate that this is what started Savarkar along on his rabid anti-Muslim path. If so, it points to rather cloistered thinking. After a decade in the Andamans, he is released, on condition that he not leave his district of Ratnagiri, and that he not engage in political activity, conditions he accepts without demur. No one can deny Savarkar's privations in prison, but he surely wasn't the only one to undergo them, and many others suffered even more without seeking clemency. But back to the film.

We next see Savarkar as a great Hindu reformer, with a scene showing him leading untouchables into a Hindu temple in the teeth of upper caste opposition. However, this seems to be a one-scene fascination, for the film shows no more involvement with the dalit movement -- indeed, the inveterate antagonism Savarkar's organizations engendered among Ambedkar and others continues till today. Whatever the film may like to pretend, Savarkar was no Jyotiba Phule (the well known Maharashtrian social reformer).

No, Savarkar's preoccupation, from the time he came to Ratnagiri to the time he managed to accomplish Gandhi's assassination, was plain and simple; it was his fascination with violence.

The film shows a meeting between Gandhi and Savarkar at Savarkar's home in Ratnagiri. Savarkar berates the caste system without suggesting how he would dismantle it. The film depicts Gandhi as advocating for the caste system, a half-truth at best. Gandhi's associates came from all castes and communities; Savarkar's were strictly Chitpavan Brahmins, but don't expect the film to dwell on these small details. More interesting is the brief conversation about violence. Savarkar challenges Gandhi on his advocacy of non-violence. This is an interesting argument. Savarkar's point is that Britain is such a strong power that she can only be dislodged by violence. Gandhi is shown as implying that the reason for using non-violence is because we could never muster enough arms to confront Britain. This is plain falsehood, as his approach to Chauri Chaura would show. But the film needs to decry Gandhi to show Savarkar as an equal. (A quick peep into factland -- at the time the meeting took place, Gandhi had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, both in India and South Africa, and electrified the whole country, as Savarkar and his revolvers-tucked-into-books never would. Many charismatic leaders in India felt their place usurped by Mahatma Gandhi's advent, Jinnah and Savarkar among them. Each would take his revenge in his own way.)

In Ratnagiri, Savarkar is shown as being harrassed constantly by the secret police. One wonders why, for both the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League were doing exactly what the British wanted -- dividing the country on communal lines and acting as a couterweight to the national movement.

In the film, Subhas Chandra Bose visits Savarkar (at the suggestion of no less a personage than Jinnah!) to seek his advice. Before Netaji arrives, Savarkar tells his aide that no one else, including the aide, should be present at the meeting. Very convenient. Since Bose has never mentioned it, we have only Savarkar's word for what took place. The movie contends that it was on Savarkar's instance that Netaji raised the Indian National Army (talk of Al Gore inventing the Internet)! The movie later says that Bose, in one of his radio broadcasts from Singapore, praised Savarkar as the only Indian leader with a vision. If so, it was different vision from Bose's own. Netaji did not distinguish at all between Hindus and Muslims in the INA.

Freedom comes, and Savarkar is shown to be deeply troubled by the country's partition. Not surprisingly, the film omits the fact that it was Savarkar who propounded the Two-Nation Theory -- at least 3 years before Jinnah did. For all his anguish, what did he do to oppose partition? The film does not answer. One perversely wonders, since the Swatantrayaveer did not want partition and believed fervently in assassinations, why didn't he try to bump off Jinnah, who wanted partition instead of Gandhi, who opposed it? The tart answer is that Jinnah had bodyguards. Therein lies a kernel of truth. Savarkar, and his inheritors in the Hindutva Brigade today, are primarily raucous bullies, active against unarmed victims, mumbling conformers in the face of stronger opponents. Savarkar's life is testimony to the validity of Gandhi's admonition about hatred. Hate will morph. Savarkar's hatred of the British is palpable in the scene where he stands before the English parliament shortly after he reaches England. Soon England is left behind but the hatred stays -- first of the British, then of the Muslims, and finally, of Gandhi.

The movie tells an interesting story, and is generally well cast. The best actor, incidentally, is the Irish jailor (Tom Alter). Savarkar's character is a close second, displaying an almost clinical coldness which was central to Savarkar's psychology. Savarkar' brother Babu Rao's is more human. The other characters do not register. One wishes Rahi had used Englishmen for some of the English roles to make the dialogs more realistic.

The film ends with Freedom, with Savarkar enigmatically carrying two flags, one the Indian tricolor, and the other showing a Swastika. It does not deal with two vital aspects -- one, as mentioned earlier, Savarkar's indictment and near conviction (a later inquiry found more evidence which would have surely convicted him) in the Gandhi murder.

The second, and equally important aspect, is his treatise on Hindutva, the bedrock of the current ruling party's philosophy in India. This would have made for an interesting, and indeed, educational viewing. The only time the movie touches upon this is when Savarkar talks to some muslims about the Khilafat movement. Gandhi's participation in, and encouragement of, the Khilafat movement was controversial at the time. Savarkar, with many others, rightly saw in it a Pan-Islamism which was at least orthogonal, if not exactly opposed, to the concept of Indian nationhood. But Gandhi saw in it an opportunity for Hindus in India to make common cause with their brothers the Muslims of India, at a time when the latter were suffering an emotional hurt. But Gandhi was not so wrong as it might seem. The same groups that are bringing Savarkar's movie to theaters in America, who get agitated by what goes on in India, could similarly be told by Americans that their interests represent a Pan-Indianism or Pan-Hinduism which is incompatible with being an American. In the end, whatever he did, Gandhi promoted friendship and the culture of non-violence. Savarkar preached hatred of minorities and fostered assassination.

Nor does the film highlight Savarkar's skills as a writer or poet (except for one excruciatingly long poem shown being recited by the hero, with the Sanskrit text clashing with the English subtitle making it all the more difficult), which are said to be considerable. When visited by a police officer, he hands him a pen, saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. Apparently that cliche was only for others. Judging by his life, he applied exactly the opposite dictum to his own conduct.

For all its faults, this film should be mandatory viewing for every Indian for one simple reason. So strong an indictment of VD Savarkar and what he represents would be hard to make by any critic -- the director has inadvertantly managed it. The Swatantrayaveer comes out as an egotist, a self-involved if precocious man-child who never outgrows the stage of pre-adolescent score-settling.