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Rajnath Singh’s Claim Sparks Debate On Savarkar’s Mercy Petitions

It is evidently clear that VD Savarkar had written mercy petitions to British before Gandhi’s letter to his brother in 1920. 

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has been a polarising figure in Indian politics. Time and again, his name surfaces in headlines over one or other controversy. After the 2014 collapse of Congress, and the BJP’s takeover, there have been active attempts to openly appropriate Savarkar and his disputed legacy. Before that, Congress intentionally kept the on and off relationship with Savarkar. However, the main reason that Savarkar’s critics often cite for their disliking towards the right-wing stalwart, is his mercy petitions written to the British when he was arrested.

The issue of mercy petitions filed by Savarkar is a sensitive issue for the Hindu right wing. Many completely deny that Savarkar wrote any such petitions, while many cite conspiracies that justify Savarkar’s mercy petitions.

Another controversy around VD Savarkar has now engulfed Indian politics. The claim made by a union minister, who is at the centre of the controversy, is very new and has baffled many as it has not been made earlier in the past.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, speaking at the launch of a book on Savarkar – Veer Savarkar: The Man Who Could Have Prevented Partition, authored by Uday Mahurkar and Chirayu Pandit, said on Tuesday that Hindu Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar wrote mercy petitions to the British government during India’s freedom struggle on the advice of Mahatma Gandhi.

Rajnath Singh targeted the critics of Savarkar saying the freedom fighter was being defamed over the mercy petitions. He said, “Lies were spread about Savarkar.”

“Time and again, it was said that he filed mercy petitions before the British government seeking his release from jail…The truth is, he didn’t file mercy petitions to get himself released. It is a regular practice for a [jailed] person to file mercy petitions. It was Mahatma Gandhi who asked him to file mercy petitions,” said Rajnath Singh.

Rajnath Singh said, “Mahatma Gandhi had back then said that Savarkar should be released. The way we are carrying out a peaceful movement to gain freedom, Sarvarkarji should also be allowed to do the same.”

Hostile reactions

The union minister’s claim has not gone down well with some historians. While many called out the claim as a lie, some were defensive about the comment.

Historian S Irfan Habib took a swipe at the minister and said “at least it is accepted now that he (Savarkar) did write (mercy petitions)”.

“Yes monochromatic history writing is really changing, led by the minister who claims Gandhi asked Savarkar to write mercy petitions. At least it is accepted now that he did write. No documentary evidence needed when minister makes a claim. New history for New India,” Mr Habib tweeted.

Historian and writer Purushottam Agrawal compared the claim with the one that suggests Savarkar advised Subhash Chandra Bose to form Azad Hind Fauj.

“Savarkar became a apologist at the behest of Gandhiji… This claim is new. The old one has been going on – Subhash Bose formed the Azad Hind Fauj on the advice of Savarkar. The funny thing is that Bose formed brigades in the name of Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad and not Savarkar. Bose must not have been so ungrateful. What’s the matter?” Mr Agrawal asked.

However, Vikram Sampath, historian and biographer of Savarkar, attacked the historians discrediting the minister’s claim as a lie.

“Some needless brouhaha abt statement by @rajnathsingh. In my Vol 1 & in countless interviews I had stated already that in 1920 Gandhiji advised Savarkar brothers to file a petition & even made a case for his release through an essay in Young India 26 May 1920. So what’s noise abt?”

Mr Sampath also cited “Collective works of Mahatma Gandhi” preserved by the Sevagram Ashram website as his source for this information.

The letter written by Mahatma Gandhi to VD Savarkar’s brother in 1920. ( Source: www.gandhiashramsevagram.org )

 

Opposition rejects the claim

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, tweeting the same letter from Gandhi to Savarkar’s brother in 1920, said Rajnath Singh gave twist to what Gandhi wrote.

“Rajnath Singh-ji is amongst the few sober & dignified voices in Modi Sarkar. But he doesnt seem to be free of RSS habit of rewriting history. He has given a twist to what Gandhi actually wrote on Jan 25 1920. Here is that letter to Savarkar’s brother,” Mr Ramesh wrote.

 

CPI(M), in a tweet condemning the statement, said: “Gandhi Ji was jailed 11 times in his lifetime and not even once, he asked for mercy. Why would he ask Savarkar to write mercy petition. This is a blatant lie and an attempt to erase history.”

Many also pointed out the fact that Mr Savarkar had already written mercy petitions before Gandhi’s letter in 1920. In fact, Savarkar wrote his first mercy petition in 1913, even before Gandhi came to India in 1915.

AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi wrote a long thread on twitter as a rebuttal to claim made by Rajnath Singh. In his tweets, Owaisi highlighted the discrepancies in the minister’s claim, saying Gandhi was in South Africa when Savarkar was jailed and wrote first few mercy petitions to British “begging for leniency, mercy & promising to a faithful servant of the crown”.

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai also pointed out the same.

Gandhi’s grandson responds

Reacting on the statement made by Rajnath Singh, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi told rediff news that he was grateful to Rajnathji that he confirmed the fact that Savarkar was a habitual mercy-seeker from the British. He also said that no BJP leader before Singh had publicly accepted what they have been saying for long time.

Taking a potshot at the minister on how could have Gandhi written an advice to Savarkar when he was in South Africa, Tushar Gandhi said he was again grateful to Rajnath Singh because he has acknowledged that barrister M K Gandhi in South Africa had such a huge influence on world affairs in 1911.

On question of whether there is any proof that Gandhi wrote to Savarkar telling him that he should ask for mercy, Tushar Gandhi said: “Not when he was in South Africa in 1911. Later on in his life, he did say that it was wrong to keep Savarkar in prison. He also recommended that Savarkar should be free, but he was not an advisor to Savarkar and definitely not in 1911 when Savarkar wrote his first mercy petition.”

Congress’ indecisiveness

VD Savarkar was a co-accused in the conspiracy case of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, a year after India became independent and was divided in two countries, leading to communal riots. Being the father of “Hindutva” ideology, he was very vocal about Gandhi’s role in partition and “appeasement” of Muslims.

However, the grand old party, which Gandhi guided through the freedom struggle, became indecisive about their position on Savarkar.

Indira Gandhi issued a commemorative stamp in Savarkar’s honour in 1970, a private donation of Rs 11,000 to his memorial fund, and hailed the Hindutva hero’s “daring defiance of the British government” as having its own “important place in the annals of our freedom movement” and even commissioning a Films Division documentary on him.

 

Stamp commemorating Vinayak Savarkar released by Indira Gandhi government.

 

Congress even approved of installation of Savarkar’s portrait in Central Hall of the Parliament in 2003 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power. Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil were on the parliamentary committee that cleared the proposal mooted by the then Lok Sabha speaker Manohar Joshi. That Sonia later came down heavily on the two leaders, is part of another story.

All and all, Savarkar is a complex phenomenon. There is nothing black and white in his story, and we’d need to read historians sympathetic towards both right and left to come at a balanced opinion about his personality. Whether Gandhi asked him to file mercy petitions remains a contentious issue, however, it is also evidently clear that Savarkar had written mercy petitions to British before Gandhi’s letter to his brother in 1920.

 

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