Will Narendra Modi's government posthumously honour Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) with the Bharat Ratna? Most likely, even though his name did not figure in the Padma awards announced on the eve of Republic Day. After all, the BJP, which has evolved into a Savarkarite party - the Hindu Mahasabha in its new avatar - is insistent that its greatest, albeit highly controversial, Hindutva icon be recognised as a "Jewel of India".
If President Ramnath Kovind accepts the government's recommendation in this regard - his predecessor Dr K.R. Narayanan had not acceded to a similar recommendation by the Vajpayee government in 2003 - it would be a loathsome stigma on the reputation of the nation's highest civilian award. This is because the needle of suspicion forever points at Savarkar's involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi, although he was acquitted for want of corroborative evidence.
Savarkar is controversial for several reasons - his many mercy petitions to the British seeking his release from life imprisonment; his support to the British during World War II and his call to Hindus to join the British army in large numbers at a time when Mahatma Gandhi had launched the Quit India movement and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had established the Azad Hind Fauz to drive out the colonial rulers; his unapologetically anti-Muslim stance which often reached such extremist levels that he even advocated "revenge-rape" of Muslim women. But, undoubtedly, the most questionable episode in his life was his close links with Nathuram Godse, his own party colleague who assassinated the Mahatma on January 30, 1948.
Here are 10 irrefutable facts that prove that (a) not only was Savarkar a mentor of Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte (both were sent to the gallows on November 15, 1949), (b) not only had they met him in the days prior to committing the crime, but also (c) there is room to suspect they may have received his blessings.
1) The weightiest fact is provided by none other than Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Gandhi's disciple in whose honour Modi has built the world's tallest statue in Gujarat. As India's Home Minister, Patel was personally monitoring progress of the investigation of the assassination case on a day-to-day basis. On February 27, 1948, he wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: "It clearly emerges...that the RSS was not involved in it at all. It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that had (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through." (Sardar Patel's Correspondence, Volume 6, page 56)
2) Savarkar gave Godse an advance of Rs 15,000 in 1944 (a lot of money those days) to start a newspaper called Agrani (Forerunner). Godse was its editor and Apte the manager. Agrani dutifully disseminated Savarkar's viciously anti-Gandhi propaganda.
3) Former Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who was Home Minister in the Bombay provincial government at the time of Gandhi's assassination, was convinced that "Savarkar was behind the conspiracy". BJP's senior leader and former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, who served as Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Janata Party government headed by Desai, has told several people close to him (including this writer) that according to Morarji, Savarkar was complicit in the case. Several years later, Jamshed Nagarwala, who headed the intelligence wing of Mumbai police at the time and who unearthed many sub-plots of the crime, told Manohar Malgaonkar, author of The Men Who Killed Gandhi: "To my dying day, I shall believe that Savarkar was the man who organised Gandhi's murder."
4) There was a failed attempt on Gandhi's life on January 20, 1948. Madanlal Pahwa, an angry refugee from West Punjab (where unspeakable atrocities had been committed on Hindus and Sikhs) living in Maharashtra had exploded a crude bomb near the venue of the Mahatma's prayer meeting at Birla House in Delhi. Godse, Apte and others were also present at the venue, but they escaped and he alone was arrested. Pahwa, who was inspired by Savarkarites, told the police: "Woh phir ayega." (He will come back again.) Surely, "he" (Godse) came back again after a visit to Mumbai. Why had he gone to Mumbai? To meet Savarkar.
5) The most damning statement pointing at Savarkar's role in the plot came from Digambar Badge, an arms dealer in Pune and a colleague of Godse and Apte, who turned approver in the case. It appears in the 1000-page book Let's Kill Gandhi - A Chronicle of His Last Days, the Conspiracy, Murder, Investigation and Trial, by Tushar Gandhi (Mahatma's great-grandson). This is what Badge disclosed in court: "On January 17, 1948, Godse suggested that they should all go and take a last Darshan of Tatayarao (VD) Savarakar. Thus they proceeded to Savarkar Sadan... Godse and Apte went up to the first floor, they came down after 5-10 minutes. They were followed by Tatayrao Savarkar. Tatyarao blessed them by saying, in Marathi, 'Yashasvi houn ya' (Be successful and return)." Until the end of his life, Badge "regarded Savarkar as a Devta (incarnation of God)." As such, it is difficult to believe that he concocted all he said as an approver in the case.
6) In his defence, Savarkar claimed in court that he had not met either Godse or Apte for more than a year. This was not true. Journalist Vaibhav Purandare, in his the newly published book Savarkar - The True Story of the Father of Hindutva, states: "In statements recorded by the Mumbai police on 4 March 1948, Savarkar's secretary Gajanan Damle and bodyguard Appa Kasar stated that Godse and Apte had met him in the middle of January." Kasar also said, "Godse and Apte came a second time in January, on 23rd or 24th, and had a half-hour meeting with Savarkar in the morning."
Strangely - and this was one of the many shocking flaws that marred Gandhi's murder trial - neither Savarkar's secretary nor his bodyguard was called to depose before the court. Had they stood in the witness box, and repeated what they had earlier told the police, Savarkar could not have been so easily acquitted for lack of evidence to corroborate Badge's claim. Furthermore, Purandare writes: "Damle said that two of the accused, Vishnu Karkare and 'a Punjabi refugee boy' (a reference to Madanlal Pahwa) had come to see Savarkar in the first week of January 1948 and had an interview with him...Kasar too remembered this meeting." This shows incontrovertibly that the unsuccessful attempt on Gandhi's life on January 20 and the successful one on January 30 were part of a single conspiracy, both directed from Mumbai.
7) Godse and others in the murder plot regarded Savarkar as their guru. This is clear from a vivid description in Dhananjay Keer's biography Veer Savarkar. On February 10, 1949, after a prolonged trial held at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, Special Judge Atma Charan delivered his verdict in which he sentenced Godse and Apte to death, awarded life imprisonment to five others, and acquitted Savarkar. Keer writes: "As soon as the judge rose to depart, all the prisoners fell at the feet of Savarkar in the dock."
8) Godse lied in court that he acted entirely on his own, and stated that nobody - not even Savarkar - knew anything about it. The court rejected his claim. But did his mentor tell the truth when he claimed that his trusted follower never met him prior to the assassination? Savarkar's lie was officially uncovered much later, and in a completely unexpected way. There is a revealing fact in Gopal Godse's book Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi - Nathuram Godse, which shows that quite a few insiders in Savarkar's group knew about the murder plot. When its author (Nathuram's brother), who was also convicted in the same crime, was released in 1964 after 17 years in jail, Savarkarites held a programme in Pune to felicitate him. He writes: "G.V. Ketkar, then editor of Tarun Bharat (a pro-RSS Marathi daily newspaper), was the chief guest. He said in his speech that he had tried to dissuade Nathuram from his thought of assassinating Gandhiji." Ketkar's statement created such an uproar inside and outside parliament that the government set up a commission in 1965, which was later headed by a former and widely respected judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Jeevan Lal Kapur, to investigate who all had prior knowledge of the plot to assassinate Gandhi.
9) The Kapur Commission, which took a fresh look at the Gandhi assassination case - especially by re-examining the information uncovered by Mumbai police - commented in its report that the "people who were subsequently involved in the murder of Mahatma Gandhi were all congregating sometime or the other at Savarkar Sadan and sometimes had long interviews with Savarkar." The commission also concluded: "All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group."
10) Finally, there is a telling photograph of Savarkar printed in his collected works which shows his portrait decorated by his followers with a garland of bullets. Why a garland of bullets? Because the politics of assassination was intrinsic to Savarkar's ideology even in his youth. In 1909, when he was a student in London, Savarkar had inspired Madanlal Dhingra to murder Sir Curzon Wyllie, a British-Indian army officer. Later in the year, it was found that he had sent pistols to India, with one of which a British ICS officer, AMT Jackson, was killed in Nasik. In 1929, his elder brother Babarao Savakar had offered Yashpal, a revolutionary Hindi writer and an associate of Chandrashekhar Azad, Rs 50,000 to assassinate Mohammed Ali Jinnah. According to Purandare, Vinayak Savarkar could not have been unaware of this plan.
True, there were certain praiseworthy facets to the early part of Savarkar's life, especially his brave participation as a young revolutionary in the freedom movement, for which he suffered incarceration for ten years, from 1911 to 1921, in the dreaded Cellular Jail in the Andaman island. Nevertheless, in the light of all the above indisputable facts, a troubling question arises: Could the person Modi and his party want to honour with a 'Bharat Ratna' have been unware of Godse's plan to assassinate Bharat's truest ratna, Mahatma Gandhi?
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
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