Vināyak Dāmodar Sāvarkar (विनायक दामोदर सावरकर) (born May 28, 1883 in Bhagur – February 26, 1966 in Mumbai) was an Indian politician and an Indian Independence Movement activist, who is credited with developing the Hindu nationalist political ideology Hindutva. Commonly addressed as Veer Savarkar (वीर सावरकर, Brave Savarkar), he is considered to be the central icon of modern Hindu nationalist political parties. His last years were clouded with accusations of involvement in Mahatma Gandhi's assassination.
Savarkar's revolutionary activities began when studying in India and England, where he was associated with the India House and founded student societies including Abhinav Bharat Society and the Free India Society, as well as publications espousing the cause of complete Indian independence by revolutionary means. Savarkar would publish The Indian War of Independence about the Indian rebellion of 1857 that would be banned by British authorities. He was arrested in 1910 for his connections with the revolutionary group India House. Following a failed attempt to escape while being transported from Marseilles, Savarkar was sentenced to 50-years imprisonment and moved to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
While in jail, Savarkar would pen the work describing Hindutva, openly espousing Hindu nationalism. He would be released in 1921 under restrictions after signing a controversial plea for clemency in which he renounced revolutionary activities. However, the plea was only a veil to mislead British authorities into releasing him so that he could carry out his revolutionary activities freely. Travelling widely, Savarkar became a forceful orator and writer, advocating Hindu political and social unity. Serving as the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar endorsed the ideal of Hindus as a distinct nation and of India as a Hindu Rashtra and controversially opposed the Quit India struggle in 1942. He became a fierce critic of the Indian National Congress and its acceptance of India's partition, and was one of those accused in the assassination of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, though he was acquitted by the Court. He spent the last years of his life writing and expounding on Hindutva.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was born in the village of Bhagur, near the city of Nasik, in what is now Maharashtra. He was one of four children – his brothers Ganesh (Babarao) and Narayan, and his sister Mainabai – born to Radhabai and Damodarpant Savarkar. His family was of Hindu and Marathi background, and belonged to the Chitpawan Brahmin community – his ancestral roots and heritage would be an important influence on Savarkar. Descending from a long line of jagirdars (landlords) and scholars of Sanskrit, the Savarkar family was well-respected and both parents encouraged and inculcated a love of learning in all their children. Savarkar's mother died when he was only nine years old, after suffering from an outbreak of cholera. For the next seven years, Savarkar was raised by his father until his father fell victim to plague in 1899.
Savarkar's elder brother Ganesh took the burdens of providing for the family, and would be a strong influence on the teenage Savarkar in this period of hardship. Despite financial difficulties, Babarao supported Savarkar's dreams for higher education. In this period, Savarkar had organised several local young men in a group called the Mitra Mela (Band of Friends), and soon began encouraging revolutionary and nationalist views and passions amongst the band. In 1901, Savarkar was married to Yamunabai, the daughter of Ramchandra Triambak Chiplunkar, who supported Savarkar's university education. After passing his matriculation examination, Savarkar enrolled in the Fergusson College in the provincial capital of Pune (then Poona) in 1902.
As a young man and student, Savarkar was enthralled by the rising Swadeshi (Home-made) campaign, and the political struggle against the partition of Bengal in 1905. His views and passions were guided by a new generation of radical political leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. Absorbed immediately into nationalist activities, he began organising college students across Pune in the promotion of Swadeshi goods, boycotting foreign-made alternatives and promoting Indian culture in condemnation of sinister and unhealthy European influences. At the occasion of the Hindu festival of Dussehra in 1905, Savarkar and his friends set a large bonfire of foreign goods and clothes. Re-organising his friends and students into a political outfit called Abhinav Bharat, Savarkar committed himself to fighting for India's independence, envisioning a republic united by a common language.
Savarkar was expelled from college for his activities, yet permitted to take examinations to achieve his Bachelor of Arts degree. With the help of nationalist activist Shyam Krishnavarma, Savarkar embarked to study law in England on a scholarship. In the same year, India's main political organisation, the Indian National Congress split, with the followers of Tilak (collectively known as the Garam Dal (Hot Faction) rejecting the moderate Congress leadership, which advocated dialogue and reconciliation with the British Raj. A firebrand nationalist of Marathi background, Lokamanya Balgangadhar Tilak advocated Swaraj (Self-Rule) for India and was imprisoned for his support of outright independence and revolutionary activities. His zeal was heightened following Tilak's arrest, and Savarkar took on the Indian leader as his mentor, imbibing the latter's ideas for India's political freedom as well as the revival of the ancient heritage of Indian civilisation. Although generally espousing atheism, Savarkar began studying Indian history, Hindu scripture and observing religious traditions.
Savarkar enrolled at Gray's Inn, a law college in London and began living with fellow Indian students at the India House. Organised by expatriate social and political activist Pandit Shyamji, India House was a thriving centre for student political and intellectual activity, and with Savarkar's addition, it soon became a hot-bed of revolutionary thought and activities. Founding the Free India Society, Savarkar sought to organise fellow Indian students for the goal of independence through revolution:
We must stop complaining about this British officer or that officer, this law or that law. There would be no end to that. Our movement must not be limited to being against any particular law, but it must be for acquiring the authority to make laws itself. In other words, we want absolute independence.
Savarkar envisioned a guerrilla war for independence along the lines of the famous armed uprising of 1857. Studying the history of the revolt from English as well as Indian sources, Savarkar wrote a major book, The History of the War of Indian Independence in which he analyzed the revolt and assailed British rule in India as unjust and oppressive. Savarkar became one of the first writers to allude to the revolt as the "First War for Independence."
Banned from publication throughout the British Empire, Savarkar managed to smuggle his work to expatriate Indian revolutionary Madame Bhikaji Cama, who obtained its publication in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Widely smuggled and circulated, the book would attain great popularity and would influence rising young Indians and future revolutionaries, including Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. With a core group of fellow students, Savarkar began studying revolutionary methods and came into contact with a veteran of the Russian Revolution of 1905, who imparted the knowledge of bomb-making to Savarkar and his friends. Savarkar would print and circulate a manual amongst his friends, on bomb-making and other methods of guerrilla warfare.
In 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, a keen follower and friend of Savarkar, assassinated British MP Sir Curzon Wylie in a public meeting. Dhingra's action provoked controversy across Britain and India, evoking enthusiastic admiration as well as condemnation. Savarkar published an article in which he all but endorsed the murder and worked to organise support, both political and for Dhingra's legal defence. At a meeting of Indians called for a condemnation of Dhingra's deed, Savarkar protested the intention of condemnation and was drawn into a hot debate and angry scuffle with other attendants. A secretive and restricted trial and a sentence awarding the death penalty to Dhingra provoked an outcry and protest across the Indian student and political community. Strongly protesting the verdict, Savarkar struggled with British authorities in laying claim to Dhingra's remains following his execution. Savarkar hailed Dhingra as a hero and martyr, and began encouraging revolution with greater intensity.
Infamously known as Kaalapani, his fellow captives included many political prisoners, and were forced to perform hard labour for many years. Reunited with his brother Ganesh, the Savarkars nevertheless struggled in the harsh environment. Forced to arise at 5 a.m., tasks including cutting trees and chopping wood, and working at the oil mill under regimental strictness, with talking amidst prisoners strictly prohibited during mealtime. Prisoners were subject to frequent mistreatment and torture. Contact with the outside world and home was restricted to the writing and mailing of one letter a year. In these years, Savarkar withdrew within himself and performed his routine tasks mechanically.Obtaining permission to start a rudimentary jail library, Savarkar would also teach some fellow convicts to read and write.
Savarkar appealed for clemency in 1911 and again during Sir Reginald Craddock's visit in 1913, citing poor health in the oppressive conditions, both tactical moves to get out of prison and join the freedom movement actively. In 1920, even as the Indian National Congress and leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vithalbhai Patel and Bal Gangadhar Tilak demanded his unconditional release, Savarkar controversially signed a statement endorsing the trial verdict and British law, and renouncing violence:
I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by and I feel myself duty bound to uphold law and constitution to the best of my powers and I am willing to make the [1919 Montague-Chelmsford Reforms] a success in so far as I may be allowed to do so in future.(from facsimile of Savarkar's letter to British authorities, Frontline, April 7, 1995. Pg. 94).
In his appeal and a willingness to sign a statement renouncing revolutionary activities, Savarkar sparked intense criticism and controversy, which has continued till today. Critics allege that he bargained for his freedom at the expense of his ideals, while supporters assert that Savarkar was merely seeking to escape one way or another, and resume his activities. Looking at his history, his plea seems more likely a tactical move again. On May 2, 1921, the Savarkar brothers were moved to a jail in Ratnagiri, and later to the Yeravda Central Jail. He was finally released on January 6, 1924 under stringent restrictions – he was not to leave Ratnagiri District and was to refrain from political activities for the next five years. However, police restrictions on his activities would not be dropped until the Congress came to power in 1937.
During his incarceration, Savarkar's views began turning increasingly towards Hindu cultural and political nationalism, and the next phase of his life remained dedicated to this cause. In the brief period he spent at the Ratnagiri jail, Savarkar wrote his ideological treatise – Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?. Smuggled out of the prison, it was published by Savarkar's supporters under his alias "Mahratta." In this work, Savarkar promotes a radical new vision of Hindu social and political consciousness. Savarkar began describing a "Hindu" as a patriotic inhabitant of Bharatavarsha, venturing beyond a religious identity. While emphasising the need for patriotic and social unity of all Hindu communities, he described Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism as one and same. He outlined his vision of a "Hindu Rashtra" (Hindu Nation) as "Akhand Bharat" (United India), purportedly stretching across the entire Indian subcontinent:
the Aryans who settled in India at the dawn of history already formed a nation, now embodied in the Hindus.... Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love they bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through their veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affection warm but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilisation, our Hindu culture."(Page108)
Scholars, historians and Indian politicians have been divided in their interpretation of Savarkar's ideas. A self-described atheist, Savarkar regards being Hindu as a cultural and political identity. While often stressing social and community unity between Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, Savarkar's notions of loyalty to the fatherland are seen as an implicit criticism of Muslims and Christians, who regard Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as their holiest places. Savarkar openly assailed what he saw as Muslim political separatism, arguing that the loyalty of many Muslims was conflicted. After his release, Savarkar founded the Ratnagiri Hindu Sabha on January 23, 1924, aiming to work for the social and cultural preservation of Hindu heritage and civilisation. Becoming a frequent and forceful orator, Sarvakar agitated for the use of Hindi as a common national language and against caste discrimination and untouchability. Focusing his energies on writing, Savarkar authored the Hindu Padpadashashi – a book documenting and extolling the Maratha empire – and My Transportation for Life – an account of his early revolutionary days, arrest, trial and incarcertaion. He also wrote and published a collection of poems, plays and novels.
Although disavowing revolution and politics, Savarkar grew disenchanted with the Congress's emphasis of non-violence and criticised Gandhi for suspending Non-cooperation Movement following the killing of 22 policemen in Chauri Chaura in 1922. He soon joined the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party founded in 1911 and avowed to Hindu political rights and empowerment. The party was disengaged from the Indian independence movement, allowing Savarkar to work without British interference. As his travel restrictions weakened, Savarkar began travelling extensively, delivering speeches exhorting Hindu political unity and criticising the Congress and Muslim politicians. Savarkar and the Mahasabha did not endorse the Salt Satyagraha launched by the Congress in 1930, and neither Savarkar nor any of his supporters participated in civil disobedience. Savarkar focused on expanding the party's membership, revamping its structure and delivering its message.
In the wake of the rising popularity of the Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Savarkar and his party began gaining traction in the national political environment. Savarkar moved to Mumbai and was elected president of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, and would serve until 1943. The Congress swept the polls in 1937 but conflicts between the Congress and Jinnah would exacerbate Hindu-Muslim political divisions. Jinnah derided Congress rule as a "Hindu Raj," and hailed December 22, 1939 as a "Day of Deliverance" for Muslims when the Congress resigned en masse in protest of India's arbitrary inclusion into World War II. Savarkar's message of Hindu unity and empowerment gained increasing popularity amidst the worsening communal climate. Even as the League adopted the Lahore Resolution in 1940, calling for a separate Muslim state based on the Two-Nation Theory, Savarkar publicly stated that he did not disagree with Jinnah's contention that Hindus and Muslims were a separate nation. He was firmly opposed, however to the proposed partition of Indian territory, citing the existence of a Muslim homeland in the Middle East.
However, Savarkar and the Mahasabha joined several political parties including the League and the Communist Party of India in endorsing the war effort. Savarkar publicly encouraged Hindus to enlist in the military, which his supporters described as an effort for Hindus to obtain military training and experience potentially useful in a future confrontation with the British. When the Congress launched the Quit India rebellion in 1942, Savarkar criticised the rebellion and asked Hindus to stay active in the war effort and not disobey the government. Under his leadership, the Mahasabha won several seats in the central and provincial legislatures, but its overall popularity and influence remained small. Towards the end of the war, Savarkar and the Mahasabha became increasingly confrontational with the League and Muslim politicians. Hindu Mahasabha activists protested Gandhi's initiative to hold talks with Jinnah in 1944, which Savarkar denounced as "appeasement." He assailed the British proposals for transfer of power, attacking both the Congress and the British for making concessions to Muslim separatists. The Mahasabha's popularity was affected when the young and rising politician Syama Prasad Mookerjee left the party, believing it to be too radical and out-of-touch with most Hindus.
He is also the author of poems like "Sagara pran talmalala" (O Great Sea, my heart aches for the motherland), and "Jayostute" (written in praise of freedom), one of the most moving, inspiring and patriotic works in Marathi literature. When in the Cellular jail, Savarkar was denied pen and paper. He composed and wrote his poems on the prison walls with thorns and pebbles, memorised thousands lines of his poetry for years till other prisoners returning home brought them to India. Savarkar is credited with several popular neologisms in Marathi and Hindi, like Digdarshak (leader or director, one who points in the right direction), Shatkar (a score of six runs in cricket), Saptahik (Weekly), Sansad (Parliament), "doordhwani" ("telephone"), "tanklekhan" ("typewriting") among others.
Savarkar had become one of the fiercest critics of Mahatma Gandhi, and attacked him and the Congress leadership for acquiescing to the partition of India. During the intense communal violence, Hindu Mahasabha activists were allegedly responsible for carrying out attacks on Muslim civilians. Savarkar blamed Gandhi for weakening Hindu society in face of Muslim separatism, and for agreeing to divide the Hindu homeland. The anger of some Hindu refugees from Pakistan provoked fears of assassination attempts on Gandhi's life. Gandhi's fast-unto-death in January 1948, demanding immediate communal peace and the payment of outstanding shares of the treasury to Pakistan in spite of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 increased the consternation and anger of many Hindu Mahasabha activists, including Savarkar.
Following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948, police arrested the assassin Nathuram Godse and rounded up his companions. Police investigation revealed that Godse and his chief conspirator Narayan Apte had been a close political confidantes of Savarkar in the Hindu Mahasabha. Despite having publicly denounced Gandhi's murder, Savarkar was arrested on suspicion of having inspired and planned Gandhi's murder, and accordingly indicted. The court exonerated him citing insufficient evidence, even though some witnesses during the trial testified that Savarkar had blessed Nathuram Godse before he shot Gandhi, with the words "Yashasvi howun yaa" (Marathi: Come back with success). In the court, approvers had testified to the intimate relationship between Savarkar and the Godse brothers, but there was no corroborative evidence to nail down Savarkar's assertion that he had had merely formal relationships with them.
Even before the trial, However, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had, in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, clearly stated his doubts over allegations that Savarkar had masterminded the murder. Godse claimed full responsibility for planning and carrying out the attack, in absence of an independent corroboration of the prosecution witness Digambar Ramchandra Badge's evidence implicating Savarkar directly, the court exonerated him citing insufficient evidence.
Savarkar maintained a standing of a legendary freedom fighter, especially in Maharashtra, regarded with respect and admiration for his revolutionary activities and work on behalf of Hindus. He considered RSS and its associate organizations as too timid. But RSS had a stronger appeal to the votaries of Hindutva. RSS founder Hedgewar had the highest respect for Savarkar, and RSS continues to acknowledge Savarkar's efforts for the Hindu unity.
Savarkar exercised Voluntary Euthanasia and passed away on February 27, 1966 and was mourned by large crowds that attended his cremation. He had written an article 'Atma-hatya or Deh-tyaag', arguing that suicide in most cases is taking one's life, but renouncing life after the body was no longer capable of functioning properly was a different matter. He left behind a son (Vishwas Savarkar) and a daughter (Prabhat-tai Chiplunkar). His first son, Prabhakar, had died in infancy. His home, possessions and other personal relics have been preserved for public display.
In 2003, Veer Savarkar, a movie produced by Shri Sudhir Phadke, depicted the life and times of Veer Savarkar.