Popular discussions about Vinayak Damodar Savarkar tend to either be hagiographic or vilify, depending on the speaker’s political, religious, or caste affiliations. In contemporary political discourse, every argument is reduced to a one-line snippet, a monolithic stance, a catchy sound bite stripped of all nuance. The opponent’s side is painted as “all evil” while one’s own side is seen as the paragon of virtue; and this simplistic black-and-white worldview, in turn, forces others to play the same game. You do not need a writer to tell you that. I always try to present a comprehensive picture in the belief that every debate should be approached within a holistic frame of certain fundamental questions that underpin the subject.

Amid attempts to whitewash Savarkar’s image as an unsung hero, today we also see others belittling his role in the Indian freedom struggle, particularly ridiculing his clemency petitions to the British. To set the record straight, I wish to aver that Savarkar undoubtedly suffered torture and did so for the sake of Indian independence. He was neither cowardly nor selfish. Denying his sacrifice only exposes a mean-minded approach that favours a complete dismissal of, and contempt for, the other side. I shall try to approach Savarkar here within a wider historical context.

Violent rebels and democratic protesters

Those who defend Savarkar claim that Gandhi and Nehru received far better treatment in prison. This ridiculous comparison even extends to asking if Ambedkar ever went to jail. Before making such comparisons, it is important to grasp that historically, all governments make a clear distinction between armed insurgents and democratic protesters. Weapons communicate a very clear message: there is no room for any negotiation or compromise; the only possible outcome is the equilibrium that emerges in the aftermath of a violent clash of arms.

When you choose the path of violence, you provide the justification for any violence unleashed against your own side. After making such a choice, there is no use complaining about how violently the enemy retaliated. Nothing is more absurd than claiming one’s own violence as virtuous while the opponent’s as immoral.

Any government naturally tries to suppress armed insurgency against it—be it the British government or the present-day Indian government. To dress up one’s defeat in such an unequal struggle as a sacrifice is both logically fallacious and morally reprehensible. The first ethical question that arises is: “If you had won, would you not have done to them what they did to you?”

Savarkar called for an armed rebellion against the British and made preparations for it. He was not grounded by a sense of either reality or history. He had no understanding of the power of the great administrative machinery of the British or their massive army. Lacking a sense of history, he failed to see that the British government drew its power from the popular acceptance it had gained from the millions of Indian people it ruled over.

How the British came to rule India

For context, the British came to power in India after the fall of the Mughal empire in an environment of utter chaos and anarchy. When they arrived, India was perishing in hundreds of petty wars. Armies had been disbanded and turned into bandit groups. The British brought about civil peace, created an orderly administration, and established a common law; therefore, the people of India accepted their rule. The situation at Savarkar’s time was that if a movement opposed the British without neutralising the popular acceptance the latter enjoyed, it would never gain mass appeal. Unfortunately, Savarkar did not grasp any of this.

The evil of the British rule lay in its ruthless economic exploitation of the country, which they unleashed through the local zamindars. In fact, the great famines that resulted from this exploitation caused a hundred times more deaths, destruction, and displacements than had occurred during the anarchic phase in India’s history. It was Gandhi, who, by highlighting this economic exploitation and demonstrating its practical effects on the nation, put forward a serious critique of the British regime among the Indian populace. Only after Gandhi’s intervention did the Indian freedom struggle become a people’s movement.

Violence versus democratic resistance

Before the advent of Gandhi, during Savarkar’s era, some “intellectuals” believed that the British could be driven out using violent means. Once a violent struggle was initiated, they thought people would join in the riots to destroy the British. Fifty years later, tragically, the naxalites too shared the same belief and modus operandi. Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, and Subhash Chandra Bose were all people with a similar misapprehension of history. Their rebellion was a childish effort completely based on their belief in violence and a misbegotten sense of personal adventure. Their misplaced confidence came from imagining themselves to be extraordinary men capable of determining history. Essentially, it stemmed from a lack of faith in the great power of the people.

The British successfully suppressed violent uprisings in India thanks to their experience in doing so across the world. Savarkar was imprisoned; others were killed. A thoughtful person today might understand the sentiments of rebels such as Savarkar and even respect their cause. After all, they were freedom fighters too. That regard does not in any way justify their views or methods. High-strung demagogues may obscure this distinction, but a discerning public must not lose sight of it.

What Gandhi and Nehru spearheaded was a democratic resistance. Gandhi argued that a British life mattered no less than an Indian life. He claimed to be fighting on behalf of the working class in Britain as well. Whenever he went to Britain, he stayed with the poorest there; history shows that the blue-collar British flocked to the harbour to welcome him.

Gandhi meticulously avoided violence at every turn. He was always open to negotiation. He also maintained close personal ties with some of the great names in the British empire who, in turn, held him in high esteem. He insisted that his struggle was for the basic democratic rights of Indians and was not a war against the British. He repeatedly declared that none of the British people were his enemies and reiterated the same message to the people of India. He envisioned his movement as one that would catalyse India’s turn towards democracy, which was anyway historically inevitable. In the dialectic of history, he saw the British and his side only as two forces propelling India in the same direction…

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