Busting the Myth: Did Savarkar “apologise”?

Busting the Myth: Did Savarkar “apologise”?

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has remained a controversial figure of Indian politics. In recent times though, the attempts of his vilification have intensified. Much is made of his clemency petitions, often called “apology letters” by the critics, written during his imprisonment in Andamans. This article investigates the facts of this case and dissects the opposing claims one by one.

In reality, nowhere does Savarkar apologise in the clemency petitions that he wrote. Upon reading the petitions would one realise that there is not so much as a “sorry” in the petitions. This can be corroborated by the note, dated November 23, 1913, written by Home Member Sir Reginald Craddock to Governor General, on his way back to Mainland India following his interviews of the political prisoners of the Cellular Jail. An excerpt from the note reads as follows:

Savarkar’s petition is one for mercy. He cannot be said to express any regret or repentance, but he affects to have changed his views, urging that the hopeless condition of Indians in 1906-1907 was his excuse for entering upon a conspiracy. [1]

This needs to be seen in light of what Savarkar wrote in his petition of 1913:

The latest development of the Indian politics and the conciliating policy of the Government have thrown open the constitutional line once more. Now no man having the good of India and Humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore 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. [1]

It is clear that Savarkar showed no repentance, but instead argued that his views had changed and that he would renounce the revolutionary activism and adopt peaceful methods if he were to be released. It must be noted that It was a common tactic of the revolutionaries to promise to stay away from politics in exchange for release from the prison. Many revolutionaries and political prisoners, like Nand Gopal, Barindra Ghosh (brother of Aurobindo), Sachindranath Sanyal, Sudhir Sarkar etc, wrote similar petitions. In fact, Sachin Sanyal was released after he submitted his petition, but Savarkar was not. Sanyal wrote about it in his memoir:

मैने जवाब में यह कहा था कि “विनायक दामोदर सावरकर ने भी तो अपनी चिट्ठी मे ऐसी ही भावना प्रकट की थी जैसे कि मैंने की है तो फिर सावरकर को क्यों नही छोड़ा गया और मुझी को क्यों छोड़ा गया?” (I said in response, “Why was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar not released but I was, although I wrote almost the same petition as him?”) [2]

Sanyal adds:

दुसरी बात सावरकर के न छूटने मे यह थी कि सावरकरजी और उनके दो-चार साथियों की गिरफ्तारी के बाद महाराष्ट्र में क्रांतिकारी आंदोलन समाप्त-सा हो गया था इसलिये सरकार को यह डर था कि यदि सावरकर इत्यादि को छोड दिया जय तो ऐसा ना हो की फिर महाराष्ट्र में क्रांतिकारी आंदोलन प्रारंभ हो जाए। (Another reason that Savarkar was not released was that the revolutionary movement in Maharashtra had been subdued following the arrest of Savarkar and his companions. And the government feared that if Savarkar and others were released, the revolutionary movement in Maharashtra would revitalise.) [2]

Now, Savarkar’s promise of “loyalty to the English government” in the petition might raise a few eyebrows. Firstly, as stated earlier, it was common for revolutionaries to make such promises. Secondly, it should be pointed out that the British government too was aware that the revolutionaries did not keep this promise of loyalty to the government after their release. The Bombay government’s letter dated 19th June 1920, in response to a petition by Savarkar dated 30th March 1920 for a conditional release, sheds light on this. By this time, Sanyal, Barindra Ghosh and many others were already released, with the exception of a few including Savarkar brothers. An excerpt from the letter reads:

The most recent secret reports on the activities of Barindra do not encourage this Government to believe that the extension of the amnesty to criminals of this type has been in any way useful. As for release on adequate guarantee, Government think that conditions in such cases are useless. [3]

As an example, it is worth mentioning here that after Sanyal’s release from the Cellular Jail, he was again involved in the revolutionary activities along with Ram Prasad Bismil and co-founded Hindustan Republican Association. He was also a mentor to young revolutionaries like Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. Later he was sent back to the cellular jail because of his activities. Likewise, the British government feared that Savarkar would again get involved in the revolutionary movement if he were to be sent back to Mainland India. They were even fearful of allowing him out of the cellular jail on the island like other prisoners were. It was part of the extreme caution that the British government and the jail authorities took to ensure that Savarkar would not escape. The Home Department official records reveal that when Savarkar was sent to Andamans in 1911, the Bombay Government sent special instructions to the Superintendent of the Cellular Jail to keep a watch on Savarkar lest he might escape [1]. As he entered the cellular jail, a metal badge with the letter “D” engraved was attached to his gown. The “D” stood for “Dangerous”.

It is safe to conclude, from the letter cited above, that the government simply did not believe in Savarkar’s promise of loyalty to the government by renouncing the revolutionary path. The following excerpt from the same letter makes it even more apparent:

Government have now re-examined his (Ganesh) case in the light of the observations made in your letter of the 20th May 1920 and Vinayak’s petition dated 30th March, 1920, but they (government) are constrained to say that they (government) are unable to change their former opinion which was arrived at after very careful consideration. [3]

The government was also reluctant to release Savarkar outside of the jail in Andaman or to send him to an Indian jail because they were apprehensive that Savarkar would break free at the first opportunity. It is apparent from the note written by Reginald Craddock to the Governor General:

In the case of Savarkar it is quite impossible to give him any liberty here, and I think he would escape from any Indian jail. So important a leader is he that the European section of the Indian anarchists would plot for his escape which would before long be organized. If he were allowed outside the Cellular Jail in the Andamans, his escape would be certain. His friends could easily charter a steamer to lie off one of the islands and a little money distributed locally would do the rest. [1]

The government was proven right about its fear of Savarkar’s escape. In May 1915, the Berlin Committee sent a man named Vincent Kraft to Batavia to arrange to invade Andamans to release the political prisoners. However, he was later arrested by the British in Singapore, and the plan was thus thwarted [4].

As for the petitions, they mostly served as a way of grievance redressal. The political prisoners often complained about the terrible environment of the jail and the inhuman conditions that they were kept in. Most of these petitions requested restoration of the basic human rights and dignity.

The fundamental grievance of the political prisoners was that they were treated worse than ordinary prisoners. They were denied all the advantages that were reserved for political prisoners with the excuse that they were indeed ordinary convicts. But when asked for the privileges of the ordinary convicts, they were categorised as special class prisoners. Many political prisoners address this hypocrisy in their petitions. Savarkar talked about the same in his petition of 1913:

When I petitioned for promotion I was told I was a special class prisoner and so could not be promoted. When any of us asked for better food or any special treatment we were told “You are only ordinary convicts and must eat what the rest do”. Thus, Sir, Your Honour would see that only for special disadvantages we are classed as special prisoners. [1]

As mentioned earlier, the convicts were allowed outside the cellular jail in Port Blair after they spent a certain amount of time, usually six months, in prison. However, some political prisoners, including Savarkar, were denied that privilege.

Savarkar appealed that he be treated the same way as the rest of the transportees:

Therefore will your honour be pleased to put an end to this anomalous situation in which I have been placed, by either sending me to Indian jails or by treating me as a transportee just like any other prisoner. I am not asking for any preferential treatment, though I believe as a political prisoner even that could have been expected in any civilized administration in the Independent nations of the world; but only for the concessions and favour that are shown even to the most depraved of convicts and habitual criminals? [1]

Moreover, Savarkar was held responsible by jail authorities for absolutely any unrest or conflict in prison. Bhai Parmanand mentions in his memoir that Jailor Barrie used to hold Savarkar brothers accountable for any disputes within the jail [5]. Savarkar wrote about it in his petition of 1913:

If this is granted then only one grievance remains and that is that I should be held responsible only for my own faults and not of others. It is a pity that I have to ask for this—it is such a fundamental right of every human being! [1]

Some critics also allege that Savarkar was never given a hard labour like working on the oil mills (kolu). This can be easily countered by the fact that Savarkar working on oil mills finds mention in memoirs of several of the fellow revolutionaries imprisoned in Andaman. The following, for instance, is an excerpt from the autobiography of Bhai Parmanand:

As soon as we went there the convicts told us… how they had courted every form of punishment provided in the jail to put an end to the cruel and inhuman treatment meted out to the convicts, and how Savarkar and other political prisoners had been made to work at the oil mills. [6]

The Government of India had, on 28th February 1919, sent a letter to Superintendent Port Blair expressing the desire to extend clemency to prisoners. The Chief Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Superintendent Port Blair sent, in response, the case history of Savarkar brothers. A portion of it describes the conduct of Savarkar in jail thus: “Punished 8 times during 1912, 1913 and 1914 for refusing to work and possession of forbidden articles. For the last 5 years his behaviour has been very good.” [18] The last sentence is often quoted by critics in an effort to prove that Savarkar was demoralised and that his views had changed in favour of the British imperialism. However, they conveniently ignore the “present attitude” of Savarkar described in the very adjacent column:

He is always sauve (sic) and polite but like his brother, he has never shown any disposition to actively assist government. It is impossible to say what his real political views are at the present time. [3]

Following WW1, the movement to seek release of political prisoners had gained momentum in India, especially during and after the year 1919. Numerous petitions were sent and conferences were held in its favour. The National Union of Bombay, Gadre, Bapat and Paranjpe sent to the Secretary of State Edwin Montagu a petition signed by hundreds. Amritsar Congress demanded the release of political prisoners. District Home Rule Leagues from Maharashtra called for the release of Savarkar brothers by writing to the Viceroy [7]. Vithalbhai Patel, the elder brother of Sardar Patel, raised, in the Central Assembly, the question of the release of political prisoners.

The Government of India sent a telegram to Bombay government on 4th December 1919, in view of the proposed Royal Clemency. An excerpt from it is as follows:

The Secretary of State proposes that the passing of the Government of India Bill should be accompanied by a Royal Message to the people of India and that the occasion should be marked by an act of Royal clemency to political prisoners and by removal of all restrictions now imposed under the Press Act, the Defence of India Act, the Seditious meetings Act Regulation III and other similar enactments and ordinances; the intention is that whatever exceptions are made they should be as few as possible. [3]

The Bombay government responded with a telegram dated 8th December 1919. The portion of it where the possibility of clemency to Savarkar brothers is examined is of crucial importance to the present discussion:

Political Prisoners as defined in your telegram. Government agrees to grant of free pardon to all such prisoners for crimes committed in jurisdiction of Bombay Government, with exception of Savarkar Brothers who were both leaders of the Nasik Revolutionary Society and determined and dangerous conspirators. [3]

To this, the Government of India replied on 30th December 1919: “Government of India agree that the Savarkar brothers should not be released under the Royal Amnesty”. [3]

The newspaper Mahratta, on 25th January 1920, condemned the government’s decision to exclude Savarkar brothers from the Royal Amnesty:

From the information supplied to us by Dr. N. D. Savarkar it seems that a cruel wrong has been done to the Savarkar brothers in the Andamans by their being excluded from those who have received the benefit of the Royal Amnesty. [3]

In the Bombay Legislative Council, Mr Belvi asked a question in reference to the article published in Mahratta. The government replied that the Bombay government had rejected the Royal Clemency to Savarkar brothers [3].

Gandhi wrote in Young India an article titled “Savarkar Brothers”, advocating the release of the brothers. An excerpt from it is published below:

Thanks to the action of the Government of India and the Provincial Governments, many of those who were undergoing imprisonment at the time have received the benefit of the Royal clemency. But there are some notable “political offenders” who have not yet been discharged. Among these I count Savarkar brothers. They are political offenders in the same sense as men, for instance, who have been discharged in the Punjab. And yet these two brothers have not received their liberty although five months have gone by after the publication of the Proclamation. [8]

The Cardew Committee sent its report after surveying the conditions of the cellular jail to the government, and a decision was taken to shut down the cellular jail. KVR Iyengar, a member of the Council of State, moved a resolution in March 1921 to release the Savarkar brothers. The brothers were finally put on Maharaja on 2nd May 1921 for Bombay.

Lastly, the most common argument of the critics is that Savarkar wrote mercy petitions to save his life while other revolutionaries chose not to. This is absolutely false. There are innumerable examples of different revolutionaries convicted in different cases who submitted petitions. Writing petitions was a norm, a legal option, and Savarkar was neither the first nor the last to make use of that option. The following are some of the many instances of freedom fighters writing petitions. Damodar Hari Chaphekar, convicted in the murder of ICS Officer W. C. Rand, wrote a petition on 8th March 1898. Mahadev Vinayak Ranade, convicted of the murder of the police informants and approvers i.e. the Dravid brothers, submitted his petition on 10th April 1899. Vasudev Hari Chaphekar, convicted in the same case and the youngest of the Chaphekar brothers, too submitted his petition on the same day. Balkrishna Hari Chaphekar, convicted in the Rand murder case, also submitted his petition on the 10th April. Lokmanya Tilak, during his transportation and imprisonment in Central Jail of Mandalay wrote a petition on 24th February 1912. [3]. Rajendranath Lahiri, convicted in Kakori Conspiracy case, submitted a petition to the Viceroy [9]. Ram Prasad Bismil submitted a petition to the Judge and the Governor General [10]. Such and many more examples should make it amply clear to the readers that the petitions were no more than a legal tool used by convicted revolutionaries to get their complaints heard, to ask for remissions or to make any other requests. Writing a petition did not, in any way whatsoever, mean sympathising with the British or even joining hands with them.

Thus, the contemporary accounts and the government reports are enough to give the lie to the myth that Savarkar “apologised” and turned a “British stooge” in exchange for his release. It is unsurprising that the present ideological enemies of Savarkar perpetuate this myth of Savarkar’s “apology”. What is unfortunate, however, is that the lie has become a part of the mainstream in recent years, thanks to the efforts made by some of the “scholars” to eternise it. It is sheer dishonesty on the part of such “scholars” to paint a freedom fighter as a “British apologist”, only to suit their socio-political agenda.


[1] Penal Settlement in Andamans, R. C. Majumdar

[2] Bandi Jeevan, Sachindranath Sanyal

[3] Source Material for History of Freedom Movement in India Vol 2, Bombay government records

[4] History of the Freedom Movement in India Vol 2, R. C. Majumdar

[5] Kale Pani Ki Karawas Kahani: Aapbeeti, Bhai Parmanand

[6] The Story of My Life, Bhai Parmanand

[7] Savarkar and His Times, Dhananjay Keer

[8] Young India, 29th May 1920

[9] Remember Us Once in a While: Letters of Martyrs, Publications Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of the Govt of India

[10] The Extremist Movement in India, J. N. Vajpeyi

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Mangesh Joshi

Mangesh Joshi, a Mechanical Engineer by training, is currently working for Garuda Prakashan as a developmental editor.