Did Gandhi Ask Savarkar To File Mercy Petitions, As Rajnath Singh Claims?

While Gandhi had advised the Savarkar brothers to file a petition, the mercy petitions referred to by Singh were filed before Gandhi became politically active in India.

On October 13, Union Minister Rajnath Singh claimed that Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had filed the mercy petitions at the behest of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. While some defended the claim made by the defence minister, others disagreed and highlighted flaws in Singh's claim.

Looking through historical accounts on Savarkar and Gandhi, BOOM found Singh's claim to be misleading. While Gandhi had at some point suggested that the Savarkar brothers file a petition, the clemency petitions referred to by Singh in his speech were filed before Gandhi became politically active in India. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Gandhi had recommended the filing of a 'mercy' petition.

Speaking at the book launch of "Veer Savarkar: The Man Who Could Have Prevented Partition" written by Uday Mahurkar and Chirayu Pandit, Singh made the following statement:

"Lies were spread about Savarkar. Time and again, it was said he filed mercy petitions before British government seeking his release from jail. It was Mahatma Gandhi who asked him to file mercy petitions."

Savarkar - British Apologist Or Strategic Nationalist?

Singh was referring to the multiple articles written and shared about Savarkar, and the clemency petitions he filed from Andaman's Cellular Jail, which portrayed him as someone willing to cooperate with the British to secure his release from prison.

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This has been a persistent point of contention between the supporters of Hindutva right-wing ideology, who hail Savarkar as a national hero and consider his mercy petitions a strategic move to escape prison and join the independence struggle, and those opposed to Hindutva, who consider his mercy petitions and his proximity to Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse as a betrayal of the Indian independence movement.

Singh's statement also led to a heated debate between two historians - Vikram Sampath and S. Irfan Habib, each of them arguing on the context behind Gandhi's letter to Savarkar's brother Narayan Savarkar, and the suggestion made by Gandhi to file a petition.

Savarkar's 'Mercy' Petitions Were Written Before Gandhi Arrived

Vinayak Savarkar, along with his brother was sent to the Cellular Jail for the murder of the district magistrate of Nashik, A.M.T. Jackson on July 11, 1911.

According to Sampath's book "'Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883–1924", published in 2019, the first such petition was written by Savarkar from the Cellular Jail in 1911 itself. Sampath mentions that this was part of an official protocol for political prisoners to seek their "release and pardon as part of the Delhi Durbar goodwill gesture." However, his petition was rejected.

The second petition was filed by Savarkar on November 14, 1913.

In 1975, The Gazetteers Unit, Dept. of Culture, Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, published a book authored by historian R.C. Majumdar, titled Penal Settlements in Andamans. The book included a copy of Savarkar's 1913 clemency petition letter - this letter went on to become one of the prime sources for the claim that Savarkar had asked for 'mercy' and promised his cooperation with the British upon his release.

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According to the letter printed in the book, Savarkar writes, "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."

He also mentions that his 'conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide'. "I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be," he adds.

He finishes his letter by asking, "Where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?"

Did Gandhi have anything to do with these clemency petitions? Unlikely, given that both of them were penned by Savarkar while Gandhi was still in South Africa.

Gandhi landed in India from South Africa on January 9, 1915, nearly two months after the second 'mercy' petition was filed by Savarkar.

Gandhi's Letter To Narayanrao Savarkar

During the debate on Twitter, Sampath had argued, citing pages from his book, that "in 1920 Gandhiji advised Savarkar brothers to file a petition", in a letter written to Narayanrao Savarkar.

Gandhi asked the brothers to frame a brief petition 'setting forth the facts of the case bringing out in clear relief the fact that the offence committed by your brother was purely political'.

Gandhi's letter, according to Sampath's book, and also the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Volume 19, does not make any mention of Gandhi suggesting that the Savarkar brothers ask for clemency from the British specifically. He also mentions that he will be 'moving in the matter' in his own way.

Few months following Gandhi's letter, Savarkar wrote another petition - his fourth - seeking clemency, and pledging to 'tread the constitutional path'. "Such an Empire as is foreshadowed in the Proclamation wins my hearty adherence," he wrote in the letter.

It should be noted here that Gandhi, in his letter to Narayanrao, did not specifically instruct Savarkar to plead his release to the British on grounds of his obedience or loyalty to the Empire, but to rather remind that he was a political prisoner, and should be treated as such.

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On May 26, 1920, in an edition of Young India, Gandhi put out a skeptical view of Savarkar's ideology. He wrote, "They [the Savarkar brothers] both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary, they feel that India's destiny can be best worked out in association with the British. Nobody has questioned their honour or their honesty, and in my opinion the published expression of their views ought to be taken at its face value."

Using the argument of Savarkar's willingness to cooperate with the British, Gandhi then makes the case for their release. "I hold therefore that unless there is abso-lute proof that the discharge of the two brothers who have already suffered long enough terms of imprisonment, who have lost considerably in body-weight and who have declared their political opinions, can be proved to be a danger to the State, the Viceroy is bound to give them their liberty," he adds.

Finally, Savarkar, along with his brother, were shifted to a prison in Ratnagiri in 1921, and finally released in 1924 with the condition that he refrain from participating in politics, and confine his movements to the district.

While Gandhi had indeed advised the Savarkar brothers to file a petition, there is no historical evidence to suggest that the 'mercy' petition of 1920 was filed by Savarkar upon his advise. Furthermore, Savarkar had already filed two such 'mercy' petitions, promising his cooperation with the British, before Gandhi entered the Indian political scene.

Updated On: 2021-10-18T16:53:21+05:30
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