(This post was originally published by me at http://indiaincredible.quora.com/Veer-Savarkar-Early-Years-Cellular-Jail here)
I had actually wanted to write a single article on Veer Savarkar, but as I kept digging into his life, his views, just realized it would not be possible to condense it. His stay in Cellular Jail itself would take up one article. So what I am doing is publishing in different parts. This part would cover his early years to his imprisonment in Cellular Jail. I would cover the later aspects of his life in other parts.
The late 19th century, was when India was awakening to its spiritual heritage, its pride of place among the nations of the world, during ancient times. People like Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda were spreading social consciousness among India, urging them to awake from their stupor. It was however just the beginning, only the ground work had been done, the rising tide of nationalism was yet to surge. While there was a mood of a national reawakening, it still remained dormant. Precisely around that time in 1883, at a small village near Nashik called Bhagur, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was born on the 28th of May. Originally hailing from the Konkan, the Savarkars were quite influential in the final days of the Peshwas. Vinayak grew up amidst the chanting of Sanskrit slokas, and hearing tales from the Mahabharat, Ramayan and those of Shivaji , the Peshwas. A child prodigy, Vinayak composed poems at age of 10, submitted them to newspapers and had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Yet like most of the kids he was age, he was equally fun loving, liked to play pranks.
It was the time when plague struck Maharashtra, and many families were forcibly evicted from their homes by the British authorities. The assassination of the Plague Commissioner Rand by the Chapekar brothers, and their subsequent trial and hanging, fired up Savarkar’s nationalist spirit. He swore to keep the revolutionary spirit alive, and not rest till the British were driven out from India. With his parents passing away, Vinayak was taken care of by his elder brother Ganesh Savarkar aka Babarao, who also influenced his thinking in a way. Along with his brother, and two friends Mhaskar, Page, he formed the Mitra Mela ( Band of Friends) in 1900 to promote nationalist feelings among the youth. This Mitra Mela would later become the Abhinava Bharat in 1904, whose aim was to liberate India through armed revolution. Nashik would be the starting point for Vinayak Savarkar, and his Mitra Mela began to occupy a vital space in public discourse. Along with his knowledge, erudition, he was also a brilliant orator, all of these qualities made Vinayak a born leader. One more aspect about the Mitra Mela, was that it had no caste distinctions, Savarkar was dead against the caste system and untouchability.
Savarkar married Yamunabai in 1901, and the subsequent year he enrolled in Pune’s Fergusson College. His father in law was quite a rich and influential person, and he financially assisted Savarkar in his education. At Pune, Savarkar was more impressed by the extremist leaders in Congress, Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra Pal. The Swadeshi campaign as also the partition of Bengal affected Savarkar deeply and he also wrote regularly for Aryan, a hand written weekly started by him. He was influenced by the revolutionary movements in Italy, US, and the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti had a deep impact on him. The Mitra Mandal became the Abhinava Bharat in 1904, and the subsequent year he was deep into the Swadeshi movement, conducting bonfires of foreign goods and clothes. He passed his BA with distinction, and also proved to be a writer of repute composing ballads on Shivaji, Tanaji and Baji Prabhu. Abhinava Bharat in a way was organized on the lines of Mazinni’s Young Italy or the various revolutionary outfits in Ireland, Russia.
In 1906, he left for England, on a scholarship to study law, with assistance from Shyamji Krishna Verma. London in those days was a meeting point for revolutionaries from all over the world. And Savarkar stayed in the India House that was founded by Shyamji, who also founded the Home Rule Society in London in 1905. India House was a thriving hub of student and political activity, and soon Savarkar established the Free India Society in 1906 to organize Indian students fighting for complete independence. In his own words
We must stop complaining about this British officer or that officer, this law or that law. There would be no end to that. Our movement must not be limited to being against any particular law, but it must be for acquiring the authority to make laws itself. In other words, we want absolute independence.
Bhai Parmanand, Lala Hardayal, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya(brother of Sarojini Naidu), Madame Bhikaji Cama, Senapati Bapat were some of the nationalists who came from there. It made the Indian students in Britian more proud of their heritage, culture and history, Dussehra was celebrated, anniversaries of Shivaji, Guru Gobind Singh were observed. Savarkar spread his revolutionary ideas through pamphlets, books and articles. He translated the biography of Mazinni into Marathi and got it published through his brother. He learnt Gurumukhi, studied the Adi Granth, and appealed to the Sikh soldiers of their sense of duty. Savarkar dreamt of an 1857 style guerilla war for freedom, and studying its history wrote The History of War for Indian Independence, and he was one of the first to call the 1857 Mutiny as India’s First War for Independence. The book was banned all over the British Empire for its incendiary content, and Madame Bhikaji Cama managed to get this published in France, Netherlands and Germany. Savarkar also learnt the techniques of bomb making from a Russian revolutionary veteran, and he circulated a pamphlet on this. In 1909 Madan Lal Dhingra, one of his proteges, assassinated Sir Curzon Wylie, the British MP in a public meeting. While many condemned Dhingra’s action, Savarkar was one of the few who stood up for him, and fought with the British authorities in taking claim of his ashes.
It however came at a terrible personal cost for Savarkar, India House was shut down following Wylie’s assassination. He met Gandhi in 1909 at London, but the ideological chasm was too large between both of them. Savarkar was however not a doctrinaire believer in violence, for him it was to be used only when necessary, as he said
We feel no special love for secret organizations or surprise and secret warfare. We hold that whenever open preaching and practicing of truth is banned by enthrone violence, then alone secret societies and warfare are justified to combat violence by force.
In the meantime Lord Minto was planning to crush the independence movement, and Savarkar’s elder brother Babara was sentenced to life, while his younger brother was arrested in the Nasik conspiracy case. On the other hand, the British were building up the case against Savarkar, for his involvement in revolutionary activities, waging war against the Crown and distribution of arms. He was arrested in London in March 1910, and the Magistrate ruled that he should be extradited to India for further trial. Keeping in touch with a close friend, Savarkar asked him to inform of the ship’s likely route. When the ship docked at Marseilles he jumped out from the porthole at the top of the water closet in the toilet into the sea. He managed to swim to shore in spite of the British in hot pursuit of him. Unfortunately his friends Madame Cama and V.V.Aiyar were late in arriving and Savarkar was caught by the authorities. It was a breach of international law as he was arrested by the British on foreign soil. France strongly protested over this breach of law, and the case went before the Permanent Court of International Arbitration. The Court observed that since France and Britain were collaborating on Savarkar’s issue and as his arrest was done without any fraud, the British authorities need to hand him over and they could take him to India for trial.
Savarkar reached Mumbai in July 1910, and was sent to Nasik jail, the stories of his attempted escape at Marseilles made him a hero of sorts. He refused to take part in the trial saying he was entitled to asylum and protection in France. He was finally charged and sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious Cellular Jail of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. On June 27, 1911 Savarkar was lodged in the steamer S.S.Maharajah, en route to the Andamans. The Cellular Jail the Indian version of Devil’s Island, a notorious prison, filled with horrifying tales of torture, mistreatment. It should be noted that the British sent only those revolutionaries and freedom fighters to the Cellular Jail, whom they felt as a major threat. Revolutionaries were yoked to an oil mill and made to pull it, a task that only beasts of burden could perform. Pathans were used as jailors to mistreat, assault the prisoners. It was in this kind of soul sapping environment that Savarkar spent 12 years in solitary confinement. Living in solitary confinement in a prison could drive any one insane, imagine Savarkar spent 12 years that was the man’s mental strength. Reunited with his brother Ganesh, he led a harsh life, rising at 5 AM, cutting wood, working at the oil mill and no contact with other prisoners. Savarkar however bore the torture with dignity, spent his time, educating other prisoners, made them aware of their rights. Knowledge without action was lame, action without knowledge was blind, this was Savarkar’s view. As news of the torture and harassment suffered by Savarkar came out in the Indian media, there was a widespread outcry and a demand to release them.’
Life Story Of Veer Savarkar