Book review | 'Savarkar: Echoes from a forgotten past' by historian Vikram Sampath

In a new book, historian Vikram Sampath brings about the often missed aspects of politician Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s life and times

Published: 08th September 2019 08:17 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th September 2019 08:17 AM   |  A+A-

Savarkar, Veer Savarkar

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Twitter Photo)

By Express News Service

Savarkar: Echoes From a Forgotten Past is the latest penning of Bengaluru-based historian Vikram Sampath. This first volume of the two-volume series covers the life of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Veer Savarkar), from his birth in 1883 to his conditional release to Ratnagiri in 1924. Recently in Delhi, Sampath talks about how Savarakar’s thoughts still hold ground in present-day India. Excerpts:

What piqued your interest in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s life?

Savarkar had been an addiction since the time I first heard about him in 2003-04 when the controversy about dislodging his plaque at the Cellular Jail, by Mani Shankar Aiyar took place. We had no reference to him in our school history books – I had studied in the CBSE and ISC syllabus. Yet, this was a figure from the past who was intruding contemporary political discourse.

Author Vikram Sampath

Brief us about your research. 
A senior fellowship from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library aided this process. I have been rummaging several archives across India and abroad, gathering original archival and court documents for a lot about Savarkar. Also, his own writings are in Marathi and these have seldom been accessed by mainstream historians. It opened up a new dimension to the man’s life and vision and helped clear the cobwebs that history and politics have shrouded his image in. Interviews with his proponents and opponents and support from his family, especially his grandnephew Ranjit Savarkar who heads the Savarkar Smarak in Mumbai, completed the research journey.  

One line in the book says, “Savarkar and his views could not have been more relevant to Indian politics and society than now, in 2019, with the Indian ‘right’ being in political ascendancy.” Please elaborate. 

Savarkar’s name gets dragged in every contemporary political discourse – Rahul Gandhi’s defamatory remarks about him or PM Narendra Modi visiting his cell at the Cellular Jail, the diurnal opinions about his so-called mercy petitions, Rajasthan government’s decision to drop the ‘Veer’ from his name in textbooks – all these show a great interest in the man, but also constant attempts to either sully or glorify his image.

At such a juncture, it becomes a historian’s burden to make the facts available as they are to the discerning readers so that they can make up their mind on their own and realise that there are really no black and white answers when it comes to history, but a huge range of fuzzy grey! Also, considering it is his ideological successors, who believe in the concept of Hindutva, who are in the political ascendant across India, I think it is the right time to analyse and dissect what the life, thoughts and philosophy of the founder of the concept was like.  

Did you chance upon any fact about Savarkar’s life that surprised you? 

I didn’t know much about the revolutionary streak in him. We normally associate revolution with a Marxist lineage, but here was someone who drew inspiration from Italian revolutionaries like Mazzini and Garibaldi and Indian heroes like Shivaji. He formed one of the first organised secret societies in India – the Mitra Mela (later became Abhinav Bharat) in the early 1900s that called for total and complete freedom. In London, he built a vast network of revolutionaries across Europe and also produced a huge corpus of intellectual output for the revolutionary movement. It was he who coined the phrase, “The First War of Indian Independence” for what was hitherto called Sepoy Mutiny by the British.

You refer to Savarkar as “a bundle of contradictions, a historian’s enigma and means many things to many people.”

An atheist and a staunch rationalist who strongly opposed orthodox Hindu beliefs, and dismissed cow worship as mere superstition, Savarkar was also the most vocal political voice for the Hindu community through the entire course of the Indian freedom struggle. He strove to dismantle untouchability and caste hierarchies. Additionally, he advocated the unification of Hindu society. He was also a passionate and sensitive poet, a prolific writer and playwright, and a fiery orator.

What factors of his life introduced Savarkar to poetry?
His father Damodar Savarkar was a voracious reader who read not only Marathi but world literature, and this inspired him at an early age. The death of his mother Radhabai when he was less than 10 years possibly contributed to his mellow sensitivity and also germinated the poet in him. He wrote several poems in classical Marathi metre in school. 

Each time he was faced with difficulty – when recaptured after he jumped ship at Marseilles in France or when chained and flogged at Cellular Jail in Port Blair, he took to poetry as a recourse. In fact, since he was denied books and pens in the Cellular Jail, he would inscribe his poems (some 6,000 lines of them) on the walls of the jail. The sadistic Jailor Barrie would whitewash the walls just to spite him. But given his elephantine memory, he committed those poems to memory and got these published after release. He also contributed immensely to the purification of the Marathi language and introduction of new words for English equivalents (mahapour for mayor, for e.g.).

As a historian, how did you go about writing this book?
I have tried to be objective and let the records and documents gleaned from various archives speak for themselves. The book is not a hagiography nor does it try to demonise Savarkar as others have attempted to.

Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 
1883-1924
by Vikram Sampath 
Price: Rs 799
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 735

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